Once Set in Motion

by Stephen Patrick


“Each one is as precious as the next.” Hamilton Reeves, proprietor of Domi-nation, the self-proclaimed “last stop for fine games and collectibles,” leaned over the glass display case that doubled as his desk, his hands caressing a pair of ivory domino tiles.

“Uh... OK, whatever,” replied the man across the counter. The man was a young twenty-something in sandals, khaki shorts and a novelty shirt declaring him a lifetime member of the Ron Jon surf shop. “Dude, I’m just trying to find a set of dominoes for my grandma. She loves to play with the other ladies at her nursing home and I was hoping you’d have something special.”

Hamilton ran his fingers over the smooth edges of the dominoes in front of him. One of them danced across his fingers before resting on its narrowest edge, the latest in a long row of dominoes arrayed in a single line on the counter. He gazed at the tiny black pock-marks dimpling the surface of the white tile piece, oblivious to the young man’s growing impatience.

The boy said something, but Hamilton did not hear him. There was a loud sigh and a string of soft expletives, but Hamilton was lost in his study of the domino on the counter. The doorbell chimed and Hamilton was alone again. Just the way he wanted it.

He had owned the store for more than fifteen years. Domino arranging had been his childhood hobby, and he dreamed of building the perfect arrangement. He wasn’t concerned with setting any records, like many of the aficionados in the trade magazines. This construction was for him.

The store began as a way for retailers to dump their unsold games. He developed partnerships with various toy and game manufacturers, buying up unsold Peanuts and Strawberry Shortcake games alongside theme editions of Monopoly and Chess. But space became a premium as he began building his masterpiece.

Soon he restricted his purchases solely to dominoes, even began buying used sets at yard sales and estate sales. He made a little money selling the rarer sets online, but the large stack of mail on the table behind him was an unread reminder that his business was failing.

Like a drug dealer sniffing too much product, his hobby cut deep into his profit margin. He had missed payments for four months and foreclosure was looming. But the dream was so close to fruition, he didn’t dare quit.

A tearful, rehearsed phone call to his mother resulted in a check large enough to delay the inevitable for a few more months. Her “pity check,” earmarked for his utility bill, even bought an extra ten thousand dominoes for his tribute to the game pieces that had given his life meaning.

He flipped the open sign around, letting a faded orange “CLOSED” settle against the front door. It was only noon, but the project was more important than the business. It wouldn’t be long anyway. Just a few more days.

With a careful eye toward the front door, he unlocked the door behind the counter and slipped back into the storage room, past thirty-five rows of dominoes arranged into perfectly spaced lines on the floor. A short passageway led to the large aluminum-walled warehouse behind the store’s entrance.

The building was as long as a football field with a ceiling that rose three stories into the sky. It had originally been a hangar for a makeshift airfield during the last days of World War Two. At the end of the war, the highway cut across the main runway, separating the hangar from any remnant of the airfield. It had been sold and bought for a variety of storage needs until Hamilton found it vacant and waiting for him.

His original idea had been for a beautiful monochromatic monument, a white and black masterpiece, but funding and time hindered that part of his dream. The result was a kaleidoscope of color that reminded him of the tie-dyed t-shirts his friends had worn during the late 60’s. He exchanged style for size and used every domino he could lay hands on, including some rare late 18th century carved ivory tiles.

Hamilton scooped up three boxes of dominoes from a shelf just inside the door. He felt their weight in his hand and grinned slightly. He stepped inside the hangar and stared and the mountainous creation before him. A smile crawled across his lips and he slowly climbed the makeshift stairs to the fourth level of his masterpiece.

His masterpiece had started on the ground floor, but when that grew too crowded, he built an elevated platform ten inches above the concrete floor. He continued this stacking system, using carefully crafted wooden posts and shock-absorbing jacks to support each new level. The final dominoes on the top level were less than an inch away from the ceiling, a testament to his patience and balance. He had rigged a scaffold to one side to allow him to climb to the highest levels.

The goal was to have a single push tip the entire structure into motion sending a cascade of dominoes down through a tightly twisting maze on the scaffolding. It would end with a single domino at the bottom of the scaffold. That domino would then tip the final part of the arrangement: a five-foot wide run of dominoes out the side door of the warehouse to a canopied tent hidden beneath a giant tarp in the parking lot. The pièce de résistance would be a grand spectacle of fireworks and explosions that could be seen from nearby Smithtown.

It would be the culmination of his dream and most certainly the grandest thing anyone had ever seen.

* * *

He basked in the nearness of completion. He had spent fifteen days carefully laying the final dominoes that would tumble down the stairs from the upper level. He had finished the five-foot by ten-foot blanket of tiles that would move like a wave across the warehouse floor and through the door to the outside. The fireworks were primed and ready.

The letters to the media had received no responses, at least not yet. Tomorrow he would take some photos and send them in. They’d have to cover something this amazing once they saw the glory of his work.

It was only days away. He could barely conceal his excitement. He tiptoed over the arrangements by the office and stepped on carefully placed ‘stepping stones’ to get to the warehouse. He inhaled deeply, the dry desert air swirling with the scent of acetone and plastic. The warehouse was silent, a testament to the industrial sealants around the building and the walls he had carefully reinforced against shockwaves and sound vibrations.

Then he saw it. Deep within the bowels of the third level, a single domino was somehow pivoted off-center. Just enough, he thought, that it might interrupt the perfect flow of his magnum opus from fragile dream into reality.

The anomaly stared back at him, past the thousands of dominoes that separated his narrow walkway from the scar that now stared back at him. It might not matter, he thought, the speed might make up for any errors caused by the domino’s facing. He considered leaving it but decided that he could not take the chance of anything disrupting his vision.

Carefully, tediously, he removed one domino, then another, making a narrow path toward the errant tile. Using near-surgical precision, he stacked the excised dominos in small piles to one side. He inched forward, measuring his progress by the dominos in neighboring rows. Finally, he could reach the errant domino with his fingertips. With a feathery touch, he turned it back into alignment, a mere one and a half inches from its mates.

He worked backwards now, replacing each row as he slithered back toward the safety of his walkway. The rows grew with his touch, returning to their former glory.

Then he felt it, the subtle pressure against his sock-covered feet. He turned his head as best he could and saw his right foot brushing a wobbling double five. He froze, his mind racing. He moved as quickly as the close confines would allow, but he was too slow. The double five, teetered then tottered and finally fell against a neighboring one-five.

The contact was soft, almost imperceptible, but the resounding “plink” was no less terrible than the loudest thunderclap, echoing in his ears. Time slowed to a crawl. He heard another plink, then another building to a loud crescendo. He saw the first ten rows undulating toward him in an unstoppable wave of falling tiles. He reached out, hoping to somehow stop the surge, but the rows were already falling away from him.

He pushed off with his fingertips and launched himself toward the walkway behind him. His feet flew out to his sides and touched off the dominoes leading to the upper levels. He moved faster, desperately trying to stop the flow. He spread his hands out to disrupt the onslaught, but each sweep started smaller waves that grew outward from him. He could hear nothing more than the crashing of plastic and ivory tiles all around him.

He swept his arms frantically, like a man making a snow angel, hoping to interrupt some of the impending tumble. His left leg swung in a wild arc and smashed into one of the wooden support posts. The dowel stayed upright but shifted slightly, upsetting the carefully engineered balance that Hamilton had established for his masterpiece.

The metal plate above him creaked and shuddered. The dominoes, loosed from their prison by the newly uneven surface, moved slightly, sliding across the slick metal surface toward the low point. A rush of dominoes shifted out of position as the weight of the upper levels tipped toward the unsupported end. Hamilton scrambled around, clawing over the loose tiles to get back to the scaffolding.

The remaining supports above him began to groan under the increased weight. They screamed for mercy before being crushed by the weight of the floors above. The entire arrangement collapsed into a ten-foot high pancake of metal and tile. A thin trickle of blood ran out from the lowest level, collecting around a mound of ivory tiles by the door to the main entrance.

Outside, cars stopped and honked at the brilliant fireworks and explosions erupting from the blue plastic tarp in front of the store. Many stopped to watch, then went on their way, barely wasting a second thought on the importance of one man’s dedication to a game that so many took for granted.


Copyright © 2010 by Stephen Patrick

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