Tanglefoot Page 1

Part One

Hunkered shoulders and skinny, bent knees cast a crooked shadow from the back corner of the laboratory, where the old man tried to remember the next step in his formula, or possibly–as Edwin was forced to consider–the scientist simply struggled to recall his own name. On the table against the wall, the once estimable Dr. Archibald Smeeks muttered, spackling his test tubes with spittle and becoming increasingly agitated until Edwin called out, “Doctor?”

The doctor settled himself, steadying his hands and closing his mouth. He crouched on his stool, cringing away from the boy’s voice, and crumpled his over-long work apron with his feet. “Who’s there?” he asked.

“Only me, sir.”


“Me. It’s only…me.”

With a startled shudder of recognition he asked, “The orphan?”

“Yes sir. Just the orphan.”

Dr. Smeeks turned around, the bottom of his pants twisting in a circle on the smooth wooden seat. He reached to his forehead, where a prodigious set of multi-lensed goggles was perched. From the left side, he tugged a monocle to extend it on a hinged metal arm, and he used it to peer across the room, down onto the floor, where Edwin was sitting cross-legged in a pile of discarded machinery parts.

“Ah,” the old doctor said. “There you are, yes. I didn’t hear you tinkering, and I only wondered where you might be hiding. Of course, I remember you.”

“I believe you do, sir,” Edwin said politely. In fact, he very strongly doubted it today, but Dr. Smeeks was trying to appear quite fully aware of his surroundings and it would’ve been rude to contradict him. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your work. You sounded upset. I wanted to ask if everything was all right.”

“All right?” Dr. Smeeks returned his monocle to its original position, so that it no longer shrank his fluffy white eyebrow down to a tame and reasonable arch. His wiry goatee quivered as he wondered about his own state. “Oh yes. Everything’s quite all right. I think for a moment that I was distracted.”

He scooted around on the stool so that he once again faced the cluttered table with its vials, coils, and tiny gray crucibles. His right hand selected a test tube with a hand-lettered label and runny green contents. His left hand reached for a set of tongs, though he set them aside almost immediately in favor of a half-rolled piece of paper that bore the stains and streaks of a hundred unidentifiable splatters.

“Edwin,” he said, and Edwin was just short of stunned to hear his name. “Boy, could you join me a moment? I’m afraid I’ve gone and confused myself.”

“Yes sir.”

Edwin lived in the basement by the grace of Dr. Smeeks, who had asked the sanitarium for an assistant. These days, the old fellow could not remember requesting such an arrangement and could scarcely confirm or deny it anymore, no matter how often Edwin reminded him.

Therefore Edwin made a point to keep himself useful.

The basement laboratory was a quieter home than the crowded group ward on the top floor, where the children of the patients were kept and raised; and the boy didn’t mind the doctor’s failing mental state, since what was left of him was kind and often friendly. And sometimes, in a glimmering flash between moments of pitiful bewilderment, Edwin saw the doctor for who he once had been–a brilliant man with a mind that was honored and admired for its flexibility and prowess.

In its way, the Waverly Hills Sanitarium was a testament to his outstanding imagination.

The hospital had incorporated many of the physicians’ favorites into the daily routine of the patients, including a kerosene-powered bladed machine that whipped fresh air down the halls to offset the oppressive summer heat. The physicians had also integrated his Moving Mechanical Doors that opened with the push of a switch; and Dr. Smeeks’ wonderful Steam-Powered Dish-Cleaning Device was a huge hit in the kitchen. His Sheet-Sorting Slings made him a celebrity in the laundry rooms, and the Sanitary Rotating Manure Chutes had made him a demi-god to the stable-hands.

But half-finished and barely finished inventions littered every corner and covered every table in the basement, where the famed and elderly genius lived out the last of his years.

So long as he did not remember how much he’d forgotten, he appeared content.

Edwin approached the doctor’s side and peered dutifully at the stained schematics on the discolored piece of linen paper. “It’s coming along nicely, sir,” he said.

For a moment Dr. Smeeks did not reply. He was staring down hard at the sheet, trying to make it tell him something, and accusing it of secrets. Then he said, “I’m forced to agree with you, lad. Could you tell me, what is it I was working on? Suddenly…suddenly the numbers aren’t speaking to me. Which project was I addressing, do you know?”

“These are the notes for your Therapeutic Bath Appliance. Those numbers to the right are your guesses for the most healthful solution of water, salt, and lavender. You were collecting lemongrass.”

“Lemongrass? I was going to put that in the water? Whatever would’ve possessed me to do such a thing?” he asked, baffled by his own processes. He’d only drawn the notes a day or two before.

Edwin was a good student, even when Dr. Smeeks was a feeble teacher. He prompted the old fellow as gently as he could. “You’d been reading about Dr. Kellog’s hydrotherapy treatments in Battle Creek, and you felt you could improve on them.”

“Battle Creek, yes. The Sanitarium there. Good Christian folks. They keep a strict diet; it seems to work well for the patients, or so the literature on the subject tells me. But yes,” he said more strongly. “Yes, I remember. There must be a more efficient way to warm the water, and make it more pleasing to the senses. The soothing qualities of lavender have been documented for thousands of years, and its antiseptic properties should help keep the water fresh.” He turned to Edwin and asked, with the lamplight flickering in his lenses, “Doesn’t it sound nice?”

“I don’t really like to take baths,” the boy confessed. “But if the water was warm and it smelled real nice, I think I’d like it better.”

Dr. Smeeks made a little shrug and said, “It’d be less for the purposes of cleanliness and more for the therapy of the inmates here. Some of the more restless or violent ones, you understand.”

“Yes sir.”

“And how’s your mother?” the doctor asked. “Has she responded well to treatment? I heard her coughing last night, and I was wondering if I couldn’t concoct a syrup that might give her comfort.”

Edwin said, “She wasn’t coughing last night. You must’ve heard someone else.”

“Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps it was Mrs.…What’s her name? The heavy nurse with the northern accent?”

“Mrs. Criddle.”

“That’s her, yes. That’s the one. I hope she isn’t contracting the consumption she works so very hard to treat.” He returned his attention to the notes and lines on the brittle sheet before him.

Edwin did not tell Dr. Smeeks, for the fifth or sixth time, that his mother had been dead for months; and he did not mention that Mrs. Criddle’s accent had come with her from New Orleans. He’d learned that it was easier to agree, and probably kinder as well.

It became apparent that the old man’s attention had been reabsorbed by his paperwork and test tubes, so Edwin returned to his stack of mechanical refuse. He was almost eleven years old, and he’d lived in the basement with the doctor for nearly a year. In that time, he’d learned quite a lot about how a carefully fitted gear can turn, and how a pinpoint-sharp mind can rust; and he took what scraps he wanted to build his own toys, trinkets, and machines. After all, it was half the pleasure and privilege of living away from the other children–he could help himself to anything the doctor did not immediately require.

He didn’t like the other children much, and the feeling was mutual.

The other offspring of the unfortunate residents were loud and frantic. They believed Edwin was aloof when he was only thoughtful, and they treated him badly when he wished to be left alone.

All things considered, a cot beside a boiler in a room full of metal and chemicals was a significant step up in the world. And the fractured mind of the gentle old man was more companionable by far than the boys and girls who baked themselves daily on the roof, playing ball and beating one another while the orderlies weren’t looking.

Even so, Edwin had long suspected he could do better. Maybe he couldn’t find better, but he was increasingly confident that he could make better.

He turned a pair of old bolts over in his palm and concluded that they were solid enough beneath their grime that a bit of sandpaper would restore their luster and usefulness. All the gears and coils he needed were already stashed and assembled, but some details yet eluded him, and his new friend was not quite finished.

Not until it boasted the finer angles of a human face.

Already Edwin had bartered a bit of the doctor’s throat remedy to a taxidermist, an act which gained him two brown eyes meant for a badger. Instead, these eyes were fitted in a pounded brass mask with a cut strip of tin that made a sloping nose.

The face was coming together. But the bottom jaw was not connected, so the facsimile was not yet whole.

Edwin held the bolts up to his eye to inspect their threadings, and he decided that they would suffice. “These will work,” he said to himself.

Back at the table the doctor asked, “Hmm?”

“Nothing, sir. I’m going to go back to my cot and tinker.”

“Very good then. Enjoy yourself, Parker. Summon me if you need an extra hand,” he said, because that’s what he always said when Edwin announced that he intended to try his own small hands at inventing.

Parker was the youngest son of Dr. and Mrs. Smeeks. Edwin had seen him once, when he’d come to visit a year before at Christmas. The thin man with a fretful face had brought a box of clean, new vials and a large pad of lined paper, plus a gas-powered burner that had been made in Germany. But his father’s confusion was too much for him. He’d left, and he hadn’t returned.

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