top of page

This Is How It Works

Updated: Jan 19, 2021

This is Story Two in my 38 Stories Project.

Submitted by: Rhys Duggan

Word Count: 1500

Setting: MoMA Sculpture Garden, NYC

Action: Sending a fax

Object: Broken watch

“Excuse me, what year is it?” The size of the garden tells me it’s pre-1984. Before the museum expanded. The guy ignores me. He thinks I’m nuts.

It’s been happening five years now, since my father died. His watch broke on the first anniversary of the final hiss escaping him. I was staring into its face remembering the death rattle. The clatter of an old machine wearing down, you can’t replicate it. His nurse told me it’s as unique as the primal scream of a woman in childbirth, the sound of dying can only be produced in authenticity. My mother did both at once.

When the sound in my head stopped, so did the watch. There was a breeze, which was odd because I’d been sitting on the bed. When I looked up from my wrist I was not in my bedroom at all, but in the MoMA sculpture garden. It didn’t look the way it had the previous week when I visited. There was a Henry Ford where the Katharina Fritsch had been. It was cold.

I’ve learned a lot since then. It took me three full days to get back that first time, and I achieved nothing. Lucy thought I’d left her. She still doesn’t know where I go every year, she thinks I’m grieving in that overly sentimental way that some people attach their emotions to dates. It’s slightly embarrassing, but what else could I tell her?

This time I‘m prepared. I know what to do. Go inside. Find her. Bring her to the garden. Write down what she says. Fax it to my father’s office. And then, this time, there will be a response. I have to wait for the response before I get the watch fixed.

I wander the exhibitions looking for her. She’ll be alone, straight backed, serene. I have to be patient. She can slip past me at any stage, ducking back into a gallery I think I’ve cleared. She’s not trying to evade me, I know that now. She always smiles when she sees me. I eventually find her in front of some vintage British film posters. She turns. We are the same age. I’ve never seen her so young. My mother.

She’s always silent until we’re outside. I start walking and she follows me. I’m smug. This is so easy, it feels great to know what to do. It’s hot, sticky, must be Summer. For once I’m dressed appropriately, which is a relief. Twice I’ve had to buy a coat and another time I had to leave one behind. I told Lucy I left it on the subway, which was true, but not due to absent mindedness. A good citizen of New York tried to chase me down and return it but I just pushed through the sweaty crowd and he gave up.

We sit. The pond sparkles. I gesture for the notepad and pen she’s holding and she hands them to me. Finally, she dictates the note. Her voice makes a sharp ache in my sternum. I swallow my pain.

“Dear Mr. Booker, I’m looking forward to meeting you tomorrow. Regarding the keynote, you’ll be on at eight. We’ll send a car for you at your preferred time. Please let me know if you need anything else. Greta March.”

I write it down word for word. My blood tingles. They haven’t even met yet. I hand it to her to give me the fax number. It’s always the same number, but this is how it works. She writes it neatly in the top corner. Although she doesn’t know who I am, that I’m her son, something about the way she looks at me before she leaves tells me that she recognises, if not me, then something within me. I let her go. I don’t want my own longing to overcome the operation. Once she’s inside I run.

This is the tricky part. I don’t know where he’ll be, I just have to keep running until it happens. I head west on 53rd for a block and hesitate at the corner. It’s impossible to know what’s the right way so I just carry on until Broadway. I take the left towards Times Square but it’s wrong somehow. My chest is thumping. I can’t stop or it won’t happen. I turn at 49th, drawn to Hell’s Kitchen. Outside the Gutenberg playground a basketball flies towards my head. I swerve a little to avoid it and it happens. I collide with the man with the moustache.

Things are on track again. We both fall. He stays down and I pick him up. I apologise, he apologises. The wind picks up my paper and he grabs it just in time. I thank him, ask if he has a fax machine I can use. He nods. It’s so simple. The first time I thought it was a phone number. By the time I realised it was a fax number and made my way to the library to see if they’d let me send it the snow started. I jumped in a cab. So much wasted time inside the car, then at the library where no one would help. I didn’t bump into the man with the moustache until much later when I was running across the road to avoid the cold.

The man leads me up the stairs into an apartment. Wherever I run into him, his apartment is right there. He carefully dials the numbers my mother has written and we watch the note slip through the rollers. For a moment I’m elated. I’ve reached this crucial point in record time. The final thing I have to do is take the watch to a repairer. They’ll tell me that the battery is fine and they can’t find anything wrong with it. When they hand it back I’ll have a moment to see it’s working perfectly again, and I will be home.

But there’s a step missing. There has to be. Otherwise I’ll be doing this every year for the rest of my life. Not that I mind seeing my mother. I love it. Maybe I should have sat with her longer, but once she writes the fax number down she stops communicating with me. Just like now. The fax is sent and the way the man with the moustache stares at me in blank satisfaction makes me doubt that the return message I’m hoping for will come back via this machine. I leave.

I don’t know where to go, so I start walking the way I came, back to MoMA. Nothing happens, no one looks at me or notices my clothes and haircut are strange. I never know if their indifference is part of how it works or if that’s just New York, nothing surprises anyone. I arrive and go to the garden. It’s almost dusk. They’re setting up for an event. I see my mother. She’s directing chairs into rows. I realise we’ve skipped forward a day. My father is coming.

I walk up close to her, intrigued to see whether she’ll acknowledge me. She doesn’t. An assistant comes past and interrupts her. He hands her a piece of paper.

“Fax for you.”

“Not now, George. Give it to him.” She points at me. George hands me the paper and scuttles off. I unfold it. My father’s hand.

Dear Greta,

I’m very sorry but I’ve been called back to London urgently. I won’t be able to make it this evening. I will send my colleague, Ben Masters, who you will be familiar with. I look forward to watching your foundation’s progress but may be in the UK for some time.


Dean Booker

“Well?” there’s authority in her voice.

“It’s from Dean Booker,” I say. I shiver.

“Oh! Let me see.”

If I hand it to her it becomes real. That’s how it works. He will fly to London instead of speaking here tonight. They won’t meet. They won’t have dinner after the event. They won’t fall in love or talk about getting married. They won’t become pregnant with me. She won’t give birth. No primal scream. She won’t die, not yet. Not until she’s old, fulfilled, complete. He’s erasing me. He’s saving her.

She’s beautiful. Even more so now that she’s slightly irritated. I see that her eyelashes flick outwards like mine, or mine like hers, I suppose. She squints at me, confused.

“You know it’s so strange, you actually look like him. Like Mr. Booker. Well, from the photographs I’ve seen. What does the note say?”

I think of Lucy. She’ll never know I existed. She’ll marry someone else. Maybe she’ll do better.

“Listen,” I’m stalling, still withholding the fax. She’s quite annoyed now. She snatches the note from my hand. “I love you,” I blurt it out, before she can open the fold to read. She rolls her eyes and walks away.

I look down to see if the watch is ticking. But it’s not there. Nothing is there at all.


Thanks for reading.

I still have 36 stories to write, but I need your help to set the parameters.

Taya. xx.

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page