A clockmaker had moved in next door. The van arrived in the late afternoon, around four, and remained, double-parked, well after dark. She watched as clock after clock was lifted off the truck, grey wool blankets tied over the tops of those tall, wooden soldier-like figures. At first, she thought he was only a clock collector. Who made clocks anymore when you could pick one up at any old department store? When phones and DVD players blinked the time in digital array? But then boxes were next – not moving boxes. Not cardboard. Wooden boxes, made of thin slats, the lids nailed on – the kind of thing you imagine populating the top shelves of an 1800s mercantile shop. And on these boxes – cogs sketched in faint green or grey paint: small, medium, large.
But it was the shingle that appeared which removed any doubts – an honest to god shingle with the words “Clockmaker and repairs. Inquire within” painted in old-timey script with long trailing serifs.
The problem was, the arrow simply pointed at the building, and they lived in a quadplex – a large rectangular building with a porch running the full length of the front and a balcony along top. On the first level, her door sat on the far left, then one door in the middle leading to the upstairs units, then the clockmaker’s on the far right.
Though he had put the sign into the small patch of grass on his side of the building, she still received gentle taps between the hours of nine and six and opened them to find men and women, usually in their late middle years, holding a variety of time-keeping devices clutched to their bellies. Another person might not have minded it so much, but she was not another person. She had systematically removed every semblance of a clock from her home not even a year ago and the wound of it was still raw. No wall clocks. The oven, microwave, DVD player, and even her computer screen blinked 00:00 at her. Only her phone kept accurate time to ensure she made it to classes punctually, and even that she held at arm’s length.
Knowing the time meant you had to acknowledge its passage.
So after a few days of the knocking and the clock-holders with heirlooms in their arms, she did her best to simulate the font on the sign and printed off a piece of paper that directed clock owners to unit 110 and nailed it to the shingle. But this was removed. So she made another and the rain ate it away into a gloppy gruel at the base of the post. Finally, she put a sign on her own door, directing customers to the right unit, a measure she hoped was short-term. After all, how many broken clocks could there be?
And yet, one morning she nearly tripped in the dim light over a cuckoo clock sitting on her welcome mat. Already late, she set it inside the door, planning to run it over and introduce herself finally in the evening. But weeks passed and still it sat inside her door.
When the soft tapping came upon the door, she instinctively called out, “Not here! Go next door!” only to remember that she was not at home, but in her insignificant little office with its one small window overlooking the quad.
The door opened and behind it came the soft, embarrassed, but persistent “heh heh” of her Dean. “You in?” he called before poking his head round, and she rolled her eyes. Perhaps she had been confused about where she was, but the message was the same – take it next door, Malcolm, for god’s sake. Take it next door.
“Of course!” she chirped, trying to sound glad to see him.
“Helen,” he said, turning to close the door behind him. He had a habit of turning the knob when closing the door so that it met the jamb silently and latched into place without a sound. A throwback to his youth in England, she knew, where knobs in old flats had to be turned for the door to close properly, and yet it annoyed the hell out of her. She preferred a decisive action, a firm closing of all that lies without to prevent it from leaking in, and the sharp click of the latch bolt as it meets and grabs onto the strike plate.
But Malcolm’s style was never to grab onto, but to grease and slide around, to twist and turn and move silently while still effecting the conclusion that what is out is kept out, what is in is kept in.
“Yes,” he said. “Good to see you.” He took a seat in the leather padded chair, running his hands along the worn wooden arms. “How are we coming?” He nodded at the legal pad on the desk before her, a slight smile twitching at his mouth, perhaps noticing scribbles across the page, mistaking them for the sparks of brilliance.
She folded her arms over the page. “Fine,” she said. She drew a stack of ungraded term papers in front of her.
“Yes,” he said. “Well.” He pulled at the knees of his pants, sliding the fabric away from his crotch where it tended to bunch. “You know, we don’t like to harangue you, but it’s been six months. Any movement?”
Funny how not haranguing someone looked an awfully lot like it. Every week, he’d popped in to check on her progress. She wished he’d just come out and say it, but he never did.
“Good,” she replied. “Sent out a fresh batch last week. No news yet, of course.” This was a lie – not only had she not sent anything out, but she hadn’t even written anything new in ages.
“Of course.” He cleared his throat. “Takes a while.” She knew he was thinking of his own collection of stories due out in a month, of the celebratory party the President had planned. He drummed his fingers along the arms, knee rising and falling, as though pumping up the pressure necessary to lift him. “Well,” he said, “keep at it.”
Once Malcolm had gone, she leant back in her chair, swiveling away from the desk to gaze out the small window behind her. The rain had stopped for a moment, though dark clouds harried the sun from behind the hills. Students stood along the paved pathways in small groups. Others darted across the lawn, leaving wet footprints in the flattened grass behind them.
Grabbing her jacket, Helen checked the time on her phone before dropping it back onto her desk. Her next class wasn’t until the afternoon, and though she had papers to grade and something tenure-worthy to write, she dashed down the back stairs, the ones that rescued her from walking past Malcolm’s door-always-open office, and into the cool late morning.
Amazing how pressuring her to write something only made her more indolent. She had been quite prolific in the years of grad school and those just after, before she began teaching, when she still struggled to pay both rent and electric in the same month, when the only thing saving her from a menu of ramen ramen ramen was the discount at the Whole Foods grocery where she worked. The stories had flowed out from her fingertips as easily as gold spun from straw. She had simply to sit at her desk or take a pad out to the park and a story wandered over to her like a lost puppy and licked her hand. Now, writing anything at all was an arduous task and she cringed at the thought of her home office, where she had once written so much, the door always shut, the shelves covered in dust, a room she walked past as though it were the nursery for a dead baby.
And yet, Malcolm came to her office weekly to “see how things were coming.” She knew she was a disappointment to them. A first book had received strong reviews, was shortlisted for a national award, and magazines had written to her! Asking for something. Once, she had even sent a fairly major lit rag something she hadn’t bothered to revise since undergrad – and they took it.
How many years ago had that been? How many stories had she sent out and received back – the rejection letters handwritten and gentle, signed by the editors themselves, but rejections still. The second book never materialized and her correspondence with her agent had paled to the formality of stock invitations to events touting other, newer writers – events she never attended.
She stopped in at the café at the edge of campus, raising a hand to students she recognized. A fellow English faculty member, Christine or Chris or Cathy or something like that, nodded once at her and returned to furious line edits on a stack of papers. She watched the barista behind the counter – too old to be an undergrad, but perhaps a graduate student, likely Philosophy or Ancient Languages. He worked steadily at the drinks, hands moving methodically between grinder and machine – tapping, wiping, sliding, locking, pushing buttons and the hiss of the steam as he flipped the lever. The whoosh of foam.
There was a simplicity of form, of life here in this moment, in those hands as they performed tasks he had done hundreds, thousands, of times before. And his mind – where was that? Surely not on the espresso pouring thick and brown into the small metal cups, for what was there to consider about that? Composing perhaps. Revising. Working on the next chapter of his thesis, imagining the praise from his advisor.
She knew the satisfaction of that journey – the mind wandering out across the gentle hills of downtown, the foothills that separated city from suburbs, the park with the zoo and the gardens and the roses springing forth wine-red leaves, and the trails crossing Burnside, linking one park to the next, to those miles and miles of trails, and down to the river flowing along the two-lane highway, curling though forest and pine grove, out out out to the sea. And where did the mind stop, what stories did it find in the lives of those it observed, flying swooping up over and away?
“Helen? Helen!?” the barista held up her latte, reading the name he had written himself on the side, though of course he knew to whom it belonged – she was standing right there. But she had not heard him, lost in thinking about where he went when he was lost and thinking.
“Thanks,” she said and moved toward the door. A line had formed that she had not noticed and the barista was writing down a list of orders so he could put things together all at once.
In her four o’clock class, she gazed out over the unfilled seats, noting the repeated absences; this class was always like that, as were, apparently, many other courses at this time of day. One of her more engaged and appreciative students pulled a paperback book from her bag, and Helen immediately recognized the sepia-toned photo on the cover. Her book – The Thirteenth Hour. (She had thought it so clever at the time and would obfuscate when others asked what it meant. Hell if I know, she realized now.) The girl was going to ask her to sign it, and the thought made her want to throw up. Instead of the lecture she had prepared for that day – “prepared” as in years ago, because she always taught the same material for this class – she quoted her students a line from de Beauvoir: “The problem of time is linked up with that of death, with the thought that we inevitably draw closer and closer to it, with the horror of decay.” She stopped after she said this, head down, staring at her shoes. Even those were decaying right there on her feet, right that very moment, the proteins and enzymes of the leather breaking down, melting. Would they even last until she got home?
A student, the one who caused her to inwardly groan every time he raised his hand – why couldn’t he ever skip? – asked, “Is this your way of telling us you composted our papers?” The rest of the class laughed. They were only Intro Comp students after all. She looked out at the smiling, young moons of their faces and saw where lines of age and decay would mark them, how they would look when they were older. Her age. But they did not see it, they did not care. To them, time was a concept they still controlled – it was all ahead of them, none of it behind. All possibilities existed for them. Life was an endless hallway lined with doors, all of them unlocked.
She chose her door long ago and it had led her here – standing at the front of a room of students who had to take her class, students who groaned at the mention of the Oxford comma, who refused to use semicolons properly, and who would rather eat razors than format a paper properly to APA Style. To a dean who made it clear that publication was the only path to tenure. And a tenure board meeting at the end of the semester.
“Class dismissed,” she said, and left the room before her students had even taken out their books. She had not even bothered to bring hers, perhaps knowing beforehand that class was going nowhere that day. Or any day. That they would all rather be running away from the rain than sitting in that room talking about uses of punctuation, structure of paragraphs, importance of citing sources.
She heard Dawson cackling before he even reached her porch or used his key to let himself in. At first, he called it irony. Later, he refined it to poetic justice. He spent the rest of the evening making timepiece jokes, most of them weak, some downright malicious. Like everyone else, he had been disappointed by the (not-quite) genius he had supposed her to have. He had latched on to her, ready to slingshot with her out into the stars. He was himself a musician in a band with a revolving door of members. Their worlds were closely aligned and when she “hit the big times” with “those literary types,” he would be there to append himself to another writer’s musical husband or wife, hopefully a producer with a studio. He resented when she took the job at the university and applied for a permanent lease. But he held on, both of them in a state of lethargy and torpor so sticky that neither bothered taking other lovers.
The sight of the shingle and the small cuckoo clock sitting on the table by the door – the doors open, the little blue bird hanging out and to the side, staring down at the parquet floor in a kind of desolate misery – seemed to revive in him his old animosity.
After dinner, he plopped onto the chair near the window, flicking the little bird with a finger. “When does a clock strike thirteen?” he asked, his eyes narrow and gleaming. “When it’s broken!” He laughed as though it were the most hilarious thing.
When she woke up in the middle of the night, she couldn’t believe that his long, narrow, naked body still lay next to her. She couldn’t believe she had let him stay. Her mother had often warned her against falling for men who didn’t respect you. Whom you didn’t respect.
She wandered into the kitchen and from the doorway, saw the clock sitting by the large bay window. A stream of moonlight fell right upon the little birdie and he seemed to have perked up. She smiled and fetched a marker from the drawer by the back door.
In the bedroom which shared a wall with the clockmaker’s, she knelt by Dawson’s side of the bed and removed the marker’s lid. First, a large black dot on the end of his nose. A clock face, she knew. That was what she would draw, but what time? And through the wall came the rings of dozens of clocks chiming all at once, faint but perceptible.
Four o’clock, she knew. She had read a New Yorker – God, how she coveted the look of her name across those glossy pages – article about the power and mystique of four in the morning. How four in the morning said you meant business. But four in the afternoon was just as powerful – potent with its particular brand of impotence. It was the hour when shift workers began to dart glances at the punch clock, hands slowing along the levers and buttons of their machines. When schoolchildren tried to finish homework but found their eyelids slipping down over the unappreciated poetry of the Bill of Rights. The hour when college students went to lunch and housewives took a last nap before their husbands returned home. Both she and Dawson existed in a permanent state of four in the afternoon.
One hand going straight up the bridge of the nose and ending between the eyebrows, thick and bushy. And the other, shorter, down the nostril, the tip of the hand ending just above his lip, pointing right at a mole she knew he was self-conscious about. Talk about poetic justice.
The fight with Dawson was short and to the point: he frantically tried to wash his face but only managed to transfer a small amount of ink onto her washcloth while she watched from the doorway, arms crossed, smug. He left with his t-shirt bunched in his hand and stopped at the sidewalk to scream “psychotic bitch!” at her closed door before moving on to the bus stop. The lesbian neighbors across the street took off their gardening gloves and looked as though they debated whether to call the police. She waved out the window to say that she was fine and not to worry.
Her toe bumped the clock, knocking it half-over.
She should return the clock, she knew. The note that had accompanied it explained where it had come from, what it meant – packed in a suitcase from a little village in Germany some hundred years ago. All the way across France. Thousands miles more in the hold of a ship until sight of that flame and the island where names became just so much nuisance. The only piece of furniture in a tenement apartment in Brooklyn in the early 1900s. Stolen and recovered. Stolen and recovered again. The clock’s biography, written in long, scrawling letters, but jagged and pointed – a shaking hand. Shaking not with excitement or rage or cold. It shook with age. She imagined the hand that had written this note – birdy, skin like crepe paper sunken around the tendons. Blue veins threading over the tendons, under the skin, so round and plump and visible that it made her just want to slice into one to see what would happen. As though life were offering itself up, tempting those with anything relatively sharp to just…see.
She practically danced into the kitchen.
Something had happened. It hadn’t been much, but it had happened and it had happened to her. Through the walls, the clocks next door began to chime and she counted out the beats. 8 am. She looked at the broken cuckoo clock by the door, expecting it to return the call of its kind, but it remained silent, and as though in response, the little blue bird fell a little further over to the side.
Something else needed to happen, she realized. Something needed to happen to that clock. Hadn’t enough happened already? The story lay there folded neatly under the corner of the clock, pages and pages of a story lovingly written about a clock and a girl and her grandmother and a journey and a death and a new life and new friends and bad friends and all through the history, this clock had kept the time for generations of a family who had seen its usefulness. Had they seen its beauty?
As with the moonray the night before, a beam of morning sun shone down from the window of her front door and fell upon that little bird. The hand-painted blue wings, black beak, and brown feet. The hand-wound spring meant to fling the bird out into the world and drew it back to safety again. The doors constantly open. The clock face remained stuck at four o’clock – she hadn’t noticed that before. The ivy leaf pattern trailed the long eaves of the roof, and a pale wooden wound glared from a corner where a piece had broken away.
She lifted the clock as she might a sleeping infant, tucking the sheets of paper under her arm and took all to the closed, dusty door down the hallway. The computer whirred to life, stuttering, a little disgruntled at being woken from its months of slumber, then blinked awake and ready. She set the clock next to the keyboard and arranged the sheets in order.
At each hour, the clocks next door sang to her. As they passed, she began to type and type and type and type. And after she had heard the hourly chorus for the eighth time, she sat back and rubbed her aching fingers. She had not gotten up once and the word count at the bottom of her screen was unbelievable. So many pages, so many chapters. And it was all good.
Behind the walls, the clocks chimed out four long beats.
Amy Foster Myer writes and teaches in Portland, Oregon. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sixfold, Prime Number, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, and Blue Lake Review.