We’re haunted by a clock.
It’s impossible to have any literary sensibility and not be fascinated by the narrative potential of a clock. A clock with a door, and a pendulum, even better. Even the means by which the clock returned to our family had thriller-mystery overtones. Let’s face it, there’s something inherently sinister about clocks and clock-makers. A woman goes alone to pick up the family clock from being repaired and…
Is she kidnapped? Has the shop been ransacked? Is the wizened clock-maker dead? Does he pass her a cryptic message with a bloody hand?
What if there is no shop with a creaking door and timepieces whirring, ticking, and chiming beneath dim eves? What if the clock-man has retired, he tinkers with his last remaining projects, one at a time in his garage? What if he asks the woman to meet him in a shopping center parking lot – years after she had nearly forgotten the place of the clock in her life? Does the plot change? Will she be stuffed into a van by masked men with machine guns? Are there Tsarist jewels hidden within the workings? Drugs? Code? Computer chips?
“Oh my God, you’re going to be killed!” My sister’s response when I told her that I was meeting a man in a white Toyota Tundra in a strip mall parking lot to pick up our grandparents’ clock was a classic blend of horror and amusement. We like our drama. The suspense scenarios at least mitigated her irritation that I had told no one that the clock had been gone for years.
This isn’t an heirloom grandfather clock, hand carved by a distant ancestor fleeing an oppressive regime or while whiling away the darkness of winter in a pioneer cabin. Our clock stands about 20 high, and while the carving is intricate and the Roman numeraled face appropriately yellow with age, as far as I know, my grandparents found it in an antique shop. Still, at an estimated age of 120-130 years, it is one of the oldest possessions of our modern, wandering family. We have no ancestral abode; any jewelry dates back a scant couple of generations; I think there may be a family Bible – somewhere. More importantly, though, for my sister and I, the ticking pendulum and baritone chimes are key notes in the soundtrack of our childhood.
Further back than my memory, the clock sat at the wall end of the peninsula dividing the working kitchen from Grandma and Grandpa’s breakfast nook. Seeming to grow from the counter and wall, it was less of an ornament than a fixture. I think some part of my larval brain perceived the clock as an organ of the house, the heart perhaps, though the metaphor may be too obvious. Still, so long as we heard the tick of the clock, the half-hour bong in the void of night, Steph and I knew, lying on the impossibly hard mattress of the sewing-room pull-out bed, that morning would come, that Grandpa would make pancakes (with beer) and that Grandma would let us make hot chocolate, stirring the powder into the milk with the tiniest of whisks.
The clock would count down the seconds of cold dark, of unfamiliar creaks, of the Akita’s rustling pace as he did sentry duty along the hardwood hallway, of a sister who stole the covers with knees and elbows. The clock anchored our dreamships as we were cast ashore into the disorientation of a room that was not our own. It told us that our parents were just down the hall, squashed into one of the twin beds of Dad’s old room. It told us that our grandparents would welcome us into the soft bed of their oddly shell-pink and silver bedroom for cuddles and stories of Robin Hood, Maid Marian and their ‘beer-busts and barbeques’ after being chased by the Sheriff of Nottingham on his Raleigh bicycle.
Those stories are gone now, lingering ghost-like, only in our heads. Steph and I never recount them, fearing perhaps that we’ve remembered them differently, and that our opposing memories might counteract each other, vaporizing the past. Inherited – a dusty word, crumbling with the desiccated lines of loss. I inherited the clock.
“Do you remember how it works?” The clock man, benevolent, middle-aged, and not in the least sinister, smiled at me patiently.
Works? It’s a clock. It always ran. Until it stopped. It was always there, to be visited, to reassure me, to tell me that the world was safe. Until it wasn’t. This is the difference between childhood and adulthood, the realization that clocks, families, and lives require maintenance; that the permanent is ephemeral; and that we have to hold the key and know how to hang the pendulum. “I never knew,” I fumbled with the pieces of the explanation. “It wasn’t working when I inherited it.”
I didn’t try to tell him – this kind stranger in the daylight of asphalt and white sidewalk – that the ticking of the clock had stopped coincident with the faltering of my grandmother’s own heartbeat. I didn’t tell him that when she died, claimed finally by the fluids left behind by a faltering heart, I inherited a broken clock, its pendulum wrapped in a paper towel. I didn’t tell him that every month my clock was in his shop, through the three remaining years of my grandfather’s life, and the nearly six years since, that I have felt my failure as the guardian of the uncounted seconds.
I didn’t tell him as my hand closed around the cool butterfly wings of the brass key, that I wasn’t ready to be the person who made the clock work, that I didn’t know the stories, that I never collected the tall-tales nor the real life memories of our war hero grandfather in his last year. My sister listened, she sat by and listened in those last weeks before his blood cells completed their conquest, as Grandpa talked of the things he never spoke of in life, of the triumphs and horrors of a war he’d spent 60 years forgetting. I didn’t go to hear the stories of a dying man, because my grandfather wasn’t dying. I was just getting the clock repaired so that he could come and visit it. He could show me how to use it. He would beat the leukemia like he’d defeated every other enemy.
The clock just chimed eight. The kids watched as I placed it on our piano yesterday, hung the pendulum, and wound the hands to the correct time, pausing every half-hour for the whirr and bong. My grandfather’s picture sits next to the clock. I like to see him on the piano, to imagine him thumping the time into the heads of my less than enthusiastic musicians. “You’re rushing again,” I hear as my fingers depress the keys of his old flute. “Here’s the beat.” 4/4 time pounded into my skull. Time is the place where reality meets imagination.
“If the clock were bigger,” said my son this morning, “and we owned this house, we could attach it to the wall and make a door, and a tunnel down below the house, and my room could be down there.” His sister had come into the office around 6:30 because she and her “Little One” wanted “to watch the clock.”
Three faces watched yesterday as I closed the etched glass door of the clock’s case. They filed out of the room as I returned to the computer. The pendulum ticked away the seconds on my article’s deadline, chiding my clicks over to Facebook. Before the next 30 minute chime, my oldest daughter knocked on the door. “I really feel like baking something. I don’t know why. I just feel like baking.”
Two girls in terry-cloth jogging shorts jostle at their grandmother’s elbow. “Always level the flour with the back of the knife. Like this.” A white cloud blows into the canister. “You only need half the sugar.” The picture shifts and the grandfather hands over the whisk. “Put your back into it.” “Fold the whites in gently. You want the pancakes to be fluffy.” “The secret is beating the whites separately. That and the beer.” The clock ticks away the revolutions of the whisk. Another scene: the kitchen is hot in the July afternoon. “Isn’t it ready yet?” The girl has been stirring for hours. She thinks that if they just throw in the nuts and shredded coconut that the frosting might be thick enough. “It will get there,” says her grandmother. “You won’t think that it will, but it always boils. Just keep stirring.” The girl knows, this has been her job, every year since she could see over the stove top, stirring the frosting for her dad’s German Chocolate birthday cake.
My children baked amicably together for four hours on the day the clock returned to our house. Bowls and pans were put into the dishwasher. Cello practice went off without a hitch; Caitlin conquered Vivaldi and Aidan played the first measures of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star with gusto. I can’t see any lumps, but they have hard heads, my kids. As far as I can tell, there are no packets of cocaine, no thumb drives stuck to the underside of the clock, no gems hidden in the mechanism. But, something else came home with that clock. We are haunted by some combined spirit of time, memory, loss, and love. I have been given the key, and ready or not, I am the one who knows how the clock works.
My youngest came into the office a few minutes after her sister, past the noise of intent debate from the kitchen. “Sissy wants to know what kind of cake Grandpa wants for his birthday?”
I grinned at the clock. Sorry Grandma, but I know a secret. “Grandpa doesn’t really like cake. Why don’t you guys make him a pie?”