MICHAEL D. SOLLARS
Nick in Time
I’m looking for my stuff.
What’s my stuff?
If I knew I’d tell you. I’d use the right word. For now, the word stuff has to fill in all the holes for me.
I stare at myself in the morning mirror, scraping away at my sandpaper chin, and blurt out, “Matt Matthias, you’ll find your stuff in college.” That’s what I’ve been told anyway. And I sure hope so. My stuff, whatever that is, is waiting in Gainesville, three hours away if you drive the speed limit. But a worry clawing its way up from a dark cavern about that outcome is starting to gnaw at me even in the weeks before I leave for the university.
I’m perturbed that my mom has designs on my room even before I’m gone. She has her stuff. Home and job, or job and home. It depends on the day. Same for dad. They have tried to set my life to their time and movement, but it hasn’t worked out.
I could go on working instead at Cuckoo Land on Cocoa Beach Pier. We sell time. Time doesn’t cost much. Not here anyway.
I’ve been in the time business only two years, part time, although at times it seems longer, and now I’m finally facing the August between high school and college. Now I know why the month is called August. It’s troubling being stuck in those slow hours and days of time running down. Today, like forgettable yesterday and the day before that, lingers as the slow, hardly noticeable shift in the tide and moon phases. I’ve still got two weeks to get through, but at my back I hear time ticking. “Matt, you’re just restless,” I tell myself. To make matters worse, each day feels like a trap, bringing up the dogging questions about my future.
Life at Cuckoo Land is not as maddening as it once seemed, I reassure myself. I’ve gotten used to all the noise the clocks make when they sound off their times and tunes. I’ve come to see this place as a well-oiled time portal, a storehouse of unlimited seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years, centuries, that have either been used up or are stored up for future use. We sell every type and form of time: old time, new time; stuff with plenty of history and use, new stuff still in the box. Time comes packaged in the style of wrist watches, pocket watches, pendant timepieces, pendulum clocks, collectible clocks, mantle clocks, gift clocks, alarm clocks, souvenir clocks, pedometers, and even small egg timers. I shouldn’t forget stop watches. I’ve sold a lot those lately. If you want to buy time, we have it at Cuckoo Land. Here, it’s all about time! Ask for Matt.
I’m pretty good at selling time. A young mother with her pink bonneted baby daughter in a stroller came in this morning needing a watch for her husband’s birthday. She looked a few minutes and without delay decided on a Citizen, a men’s chronograph eco-drive stainless steel bracelet. Cost: a little over $400. She knew what she wanted. She could have bought it at Macy’s at the mall, but Cuckoo Land is cheaper and it’s more fun shopping on the pier. She also had her eye on the Lego Kid’s Star Wars Darth Vader alarm clock, but in the end didn’t go for it. Everybody wants time, so it’s a no brainer selling it to them. She’ll be back in a number of years to get the kid a watch. I’m no Father Time, but I make a convincing young man about time. I don’t want to be a Baby Ben, though.
Ben Shepherd owns the shop. He’s called Big Ben because he’s always got time on his mind. Plus he towers tall like a deeply rooted oak tree. He’s also called Gentle Ben. Widow Eastgate, an English woman who owns an antique shop down the pier, is sweet on him and prefers the name Gentle Ben. He opened the doors ten years ago, so to celebrate the milestone he’s ordered a bunch of anniversary signs to put in the windows and on counters. You wouldn’t know it by looking at Ben, but he’s an ex-hippie and surfer from LA. Those were his glory days, as he has told me often enough. Now he likes to go outside and sit on the side of the pier where he smokes cigars while watching the young people surfing.
“Look at that idiot!” he bellows repeatedly as he critiques the skill level of a beginning board rider who takes a tumble. I’m sure that he must see himself on the rolling tides as he once was in his younger years. Ben smoking his cigar actually is a relief to me. That means that he'ill be out of the shop a good half hour or more. The cigarettes he smokes burn down more quickly, not giving me the needed time to clean up the signs of sand inside the shop. Sand and clocks don’t mix, he likes to remind me.
He hasn’t been on a board since I’ve known him, and looking at the size of him I wonder if he can even swim anymore. I guess time will tell.
Time has shadowed me all of my years. It’s time to get up, time to eat, time for school, time to grow up, time to think something over, time to rethink what was thought a moment before, time to measure up. Time out would be nice. Where’s the stop watch?
A young man in a business suit comes in to buy a battery for his wristwatch. He carries a newspaper which he reads while I make the power switch. The task takes only a few minutes, including setting his watch. He was in out so quickly that I never took note of his face. I can do this stuff in the dark.
The money here at Cuckoo Land adds up. That’s a real plus, especially since I need it for college. If I change my mind about academics, then the pigeon-holed funds could buy something pretty neat like a better car. While I make a dollar over minimum wage by the hour, I also get commissions on all my sales. That battery sale brought me an extra thirty cents. The Citizen was $12 to me.
The big money comes in consignment and online sales. Quite a number of people who retire to Florida from elsewhere one day end up carting their antique clocks here to be sold on consignment. They are in the winter of life and no family left or no family that wants their old stuff. Ben has gained a reputation for this trade. Some of those parting with their clocks ask for Ben’s assurance that their clock will go to a good home, sort of like handing over a pet dog or cat for adoption. I don’t know if Ben actually does that sort of in-depth buyer screening or investigation, but I do know that he rakes in a clean 30% on these sales, with no outlay for inventory. Time is like an umbrella -- it doesn’t belong to anyone. We have it, but for a short while, then it usually gets lost, and someone else claims it. No one really owns time.
Antique clocks make up a lot of our business and fill the store. Grandfather clocks are not ideal because they take up so much room. Ben puts only two on the floor at a time. The two of them end up shouting to each other from across the room with their proud pendulums chiming protestations.
Ben keeps a list of the clocks he cannot find room for in the store. Part of my job is to post them for sale on the Internet.
Some people who are ready to sell their heirlooms don’t like what they hear from Ben. Sadly, times come when Ben has to tell an elderly couple that their clock that they thought was valuable is not. It’s sort of watching a segment with an unwelcomed surprise on the Antiques Roadshow. But Ben gets credit for the thoughtful and gentle way he breaks the truth to people. He first asks them to sit down, like he was a doctor who was going to tell them that they have some sort of deadly disease. He holds the clock in his hands, marvels at it, and says, “I know that you have loved and valued this clock for a long time.” His words drift out in a nervous tone. “The person who sold you this clock long ago did not accurately represent it to you. It’s not worth as much as you think it is. It’s a very fine replica, but nevertheless a replica. If I were you, I would keep it and go on treasuring it in your home. This clock has earned its home with you.”
The new day is slow and routine when two young girls my age enter. They laugh and smile as though the day belongs to them. They might have been sisters, as they looked somewhat similar in their dark hair and pretty faces. They quickly take off their sunglasses to look around. Their faces shine with energy. What is most noticeable is that their eyes shine with the curious look as if they had just stepped back in time. The taller of the two locks her eye on the hourglass in the center of the store. She is about to cross the room to look closer at it when a male voice from outside on the pier calls the name "Karen." “We’re late!” the voice shouts. As they are hurrying back out, one of the longcase clocks chimes a long deep bellow, slowing down the retreat of the taller of the girls. “We’ll be back later,” she smiles.
I’m the electronic hub behind our Internet sales. These pre-owned clocks still have a lot of time left in them. I’ve even designed our own website. I’m pretty good at computers, and Ben’s too old and set in his ways to care about computers, so he’s counting on my expertise in that end of the business. I’ve become a master clocker. Even when I’m at home during the week, I work at placing clocks on the Internet. Imagine that, I make money even when I’m not working.
The work is pretty simple. Actually, what I do is so easy that I feel foolish taking you through it. Well, here goes. I get a photo of the timepiece from the owner, post it online with a description of the clock, state the price, and create links. Then I sit back and wait. Pretty soon someone either emails me for more information or just buys the timepiece, sends Ben the money, and then the owner mails the buyer the clock. I never see the actual timepiece. I don’t have to deal with the money part of the transaction, box anything up, or ship anything. I’m not involved if the buyer doesn’t like the clock or it’s damaged in shipping. I’m what you call the IVM, the Internet virtual middleman.
My computer is my cash register. I make 30% of Ben’s side of the sale. How much? On a $1,000 sale, Ben gets 30%, or $300, and I get 30% of that -- ninety bucks. I match up a lot of sellers and buyers, but few clocks sell for $1,000. It’s the volume on lower priced clocks that counts. A lot of clocks sell for around $200. My cut runs eighteen bucks. Mr. Collins, the human calculator in my high school, would be proud to know that his math classes are paying off. I took his calculus and trig, too, and someday maybe I’ll use that knowledge. Right now sine and cosine don’t figure into the pier thinking.
Hourglasses are not hot items. You can hardly give one away. Maybe once in a blue moon, I sell one. They are mostly image pieces, items to display in homes, but with no precise or practical use. I mean, you can’t tell by a sandglass if you still have three minutes before you’re late for a date or a class, for instance. And don’t count on a sandglass as an alarm clock. They’re the worst. Some people just like them because, as Ben says, “They like to watch the sand move from the future into the present and then into the past.” Yah, right, but it’s all sand, I think, just like the miles of stuff along the beach. Then there’s the simple sundial, a device for a day dreamer’s phantasmagorical musing.
A lot of those cheap three minute egg timers, though, the ones in the shape of an hourglass, fly out the door as Cocoa Beach souvenirs. You can pick one up for about five bucks. My commission is only 3%, or fifteen cents on an egg timer, so I’m not inclined to talk up three minutes and boiling eggs much. I like the 30% that comes from the consignment clocks.
We also sell clocks on time, a layaway plan. The buyer can take a year to pay off the merchandise before taking it home. No $5 egg timers go on layaway.
You can see that I’m pretty smart about all this stuff.
“Sand is the enemy of time, Matt,” Ben chimes like a door bell ringer when he lumbers in and firmly closes the glass door. Okay, I react again, we’re surrounded by beaches of sand and he’s worried about a few grains. Sand, sand everywhere, not a particle in the place for Christ sake. He knows I’m leaving in a couple of weeks, so maybe he’s gruff on that account.
Standing in the shop, surrounded by his timepieces of every imaginable size and shape, Ben clearly has a head for time. His pie face seems to blend into the forest of the clock faces. His ears are set perfectly at 3 and 9. His long graying moustache, as the hands of the clock, always reads 3:45. He has a scar at 12:00 from the time when he took a bad spill in a monster wave while surfing in LA. His chin, the upper one, has an indentation for 6:00. I know it was a monster wave because he has often told me about it when he falls into one of his frequent yesterday moods. His bear size has resemblance to his fragile old hourglass sitting as the centerpiece in the store.
When I first started working at Cuckoo Land, I tried setting all the clocks to the same time. I went about it in a sensible way. First, I picked the Saturday of DST. Daylight Savings Time seemed like a no-brainer time for the task. I went to the effort to set my watch as the standard, not a standard but “the” standard by which all the clocks would correspond. I did this according to the standard of Greenwich Mean Time, set at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London. This setting was to the official second. Not about, not sort of, but the actual moment in time.
But all that extensive effort proved to be a waste of time. In no time at all, the rows and rows of clocks, hundreds crowded together on all four walls, both the new and old ones, seemed to make up their own minds as to how they were going to keep time. Two identical clocks made in the same factory or by the same clock maker, engineered to the same precise specifications, will not keep the exact same time to the second. It used to drive me nuts, but not anymore. I’ve learned that one can get used to just about anything.
People are always dropping in to ask the time, so they can set a wristwatch. You’d think that’s a simple question to answer since this is a clock shop. But, ironically, it’s really not, as the clocks themselves are the evidence. They speak up for themselves. The Thomas, Seth, Black Forest and Tarabay cuckoo, Bornholm and Ross longcases have their own unique voices.
The two same young girls have come back. They are new to the pier, or at least I have not seen them before. They are in no hurry this time and linger about the store. The taller of the two seems intrigued by the antique hourglass on the counter. She turns it over to start the sand running and stands by watching the grains racing through their motion. She has a pretty and simple face without a touch of makeup, as far as my unpracticed eye could detect. Her eyes seem afire with inquisitiveness as she stares at the timepiece in motion. I’ve seen the action a hundred times, so the thread of sand running from top to bottom garners little interest. But her stare is remarkable.
Then her attention falls to the parade of clocks along the walls. “Which time is correct?” she asks in a gentle voice, indicating that she wants to set her watch. I look at my watch and answer. She then glances again at the army of clocks at parade rest and looks quizzical. I smile back and say, “I’ll bet you’re wondering why all these clocks read different times. It’s a crazy thing, given this is a clock shop.”
“That is funny,” she smiles. Her dark hair hangs down to the top of her blue and orange top.
“When I first started working here…I’m Matt, by the way…I tried setting all the clocks to the same time, but did that prove to be a waste of time.” I explained the inexplicable phenomena about the clocks and keeping time. “Now I just go by my own watch,” I add. “It’s simpler.”
I decide not to bore her with all the physics behind time I learned in high school.
My time, though, runs at a different pace, even from the two old grandfather clocks standing as sentries in the shop. Sometimes it’s only seconds, at other times maybe a mere minute or two, that make the difference. But I’m rambling on.
“I’m Karen. Karen Gerber,” she says as she sets her watch, changing the minute hand by one or two digits to be fixed on my time. “That’s good. I’m right on time. I hate to be late.”
“Don’t let her get away with saying that,” her friend speaks up. “She’s always late. Late to get up, late, late, late,” she jokes. “She’ll be late for her own funeral.”
The other girl introduces herself as Emily.
“Well, in here you can have pretty much any time you want,” I joke.
The store fills with a cloud of our laughter.
The cuckoo clock above the front door readies to strike its noon song. I playfully warn the two girls to cover their ears as I hold my hands over my ears. Suddenly, high pitched squawks spray across the room. It’s hard to believe that the shrieks can come from such a small bird. On cue, two small brightly painted people, a boy and girl, dance out from two opposite doors of the wooden Bavarian house. They meet in the middle, acknowledge each other with a bow and curtsey, and then return to their respective doors. As soon as they disappear the bird cackling ceases.
“Wow, you have to listen to that every day?” Emily asks.
We all laugh again. “No one wants that clock,” I tell the girls. “We’ve sold it three times and the buyers keep bringing it back. It startles them during the day and wakes them up in the middle of the night.”
“I love it,” Karen disagrees. “How much is it?”
“No, you don’t. Don’t even think about taking that thing to the dorm,” Emily intercedes.
“Are you heading off to college?” I ask.
In unison, they both sing out, “University of Florida at Gainesville.”
Many school friends haunt the stores and restaurants on the pier. Chris and Brian operate the Ferris wheel at the far end. I can get free rides anytime I want, but how many times can a person go around and around without the experience wearing thin? I haven’t been on the ride in months. Been there, done that. Plus, I hung around with Chris and Brian in high school, and that memory adds no assurance to my safety. The twins Angie and Susan are baristas at Starbucks. They’re going to the nearby community college and continue serving coffee here. Sonny works at the tattoo parlor. Seeing the same faces every day makes me feel like I haven’t gotten far away from high school yet. I thought there would be a dramatic change after graduation, but it’s just another day. I wonder if they are thinking the same thoughts. Some of us are squirreling away money for the college days approaching. Some are not. But then maybe when I get to Gainesville I’ll find that it’s just another day.
There’s Mrs. M. That’s what we call her instead of Mrs. Myles. “Hi,” I call out as she walks past the shop for the fourth time. She smiles back as she speeds by. She’s a walking machine and usually passes our door a little after noon on Saturdays. Today, she’s right on schedule. She marches up and down the pier, logging her ten laps and time. Now she’s alone, but some days Mrs. M walks the pier with other teachers. She was my senior English teacher. I figure it is to my benefit to say hello to a teacher.
I laugh to myself because I want to tell her that she can only go so far on the pier. There’s an end, a mark, and when you hit it, you have to turn back and retrace your steps. Here there’s proof of a flat world, a world with edges and limits. It’s the pier with its sixteen hundred planks, each nine inches wide.
When she comes in, she usually asks if I’m all set to head off to the university. Mrs. M thinks I should major in English, probably because that’s her field. She’s devoted to Edgar Allan Poe and "The Raven." But then I wonder what I would do with a degree in English. Sometimes she likes to go on talking. I don’t know if she can detect my hesitation or reluctance to match her enthusiasm for my future. She’s been over that bridge. I haven’t.
She’s pretty good looking for a teacher way up in her late forties. Maybe not an hourglass shape, but still kind of smooth. Her tanned face and toned legs shine in the afternoon sun. But she’s fighting time, trying to stay youthful looking, keeping the wrinkles at bay. That biological clock women talk about must have stopped for her. Usually, she drops in to say hello or buy a battery for a watch. She likes to flirt with me, so I let her. It doesn’t cost me anything, and it’s innocent enough on both sides. I wave to her again on her sixth pass in front of the door. She’s all red lipstick and sugar white smiles. I’m not sure if I’m pleased or annoyed that she didn’t come in.
Tourists see life at Cocoa Beach as always at the full tide, flooded with sunny weather, crowds of pretty people, and festivals. I should know, as I’m here most days and talk to many visitors. The annual arts and crafts sale opens next weekend. Here no one is in a hurry. Even time runs at a slower pace on the pier. All this sounds attractive, or at least I thought so at first when I started working here.
But life on the pier, no matter what anyone else tells you, no matter how bright and constant the sunshine is, no matter the pretty people strolling about, no matter the celebrities spotted, no matter the surfing conditions, no matter the bands playing, life on the pier at times grows to be downright monotonous. I thought about the word boring, but that seems off the mark. The pretty people are interesting at times, what with young, slender girls in green, purple, and orange hair meandering in bikinis. Celebs drag my eyes to them, despite my melancholy and tepid lackluster appreciation. But when the lights go out on Sunday night and the crowds disperse like they have exited the theatre, leaving the pier empty and dark, except for the lone feral black cat perched atop a piling at the end of the pier with the moon behind him, all this life seems like a glacier slow formation of monotony, not boredom, that slowly inches its way until it freezes you in place. Yes, I have moody days. I’m guilty of that offense.
Farther down, sandwiched between the bait and souvenir shops, sits Sparrow’s Tattoos. That’s where Smitty works, if you call what he does work. He and I graduated together last spring. Part of Smitty’s job, since he’s a young looking Adonais, is to stand around inside and outside the shop to attract customers. I can’t believe it but his job is simpler than mine. Sparrow, the shop owner and ex-biker, prides himself on being an artist. I’m not comfortable conferring that label on him. I’ve seen his work. For Christ sake, Rembrandt, Picasso, Motherwell, these were artists who have their stuff hanging in prestigious galleries. Yes, I may work in a clock shop today where seconds run into minutes and into hours, but I have learned something about art. Credit goes to Mrs. Hopkins in my World Aesthetics class. So how can Sparrow think he can have the same designation as those real artists? But to give Sparrow credit, I guess he’s found his stuff.
The next day, I leave Ben in the store with the Widow Eastgate and Mayor Thomas to meet up with Smitty. He called earlier and was anxious to get together. We find two seats at an outdoor eatery where they serve barbeque sandwiches in ninety-five degree heat. You have to be careful when you eat outside on the pier. Sand is an infestation. It sits everywhere like a film on the tables and chairs, napkins, and plates. The servers have long given up wiping it away, as it accumulates again instantly. You’re wise to keep a lid on your beverage. It’s also smart not to order anything that requires an open plate and knife and fork.
Smitty has the black plague. That’s what tattooers call someone who has signed on to full body art. He’s just getting started so, I guess, it’s not yet lethal. A red and black winged dragon circles his upper right arm. The rest of his body remains unmarked, but I worry a waiting canvas. Sparrow’s trying to convince Smitty to become his new tattoo masterpiece, to use the word loosely. He wants to enter Smitty in the Pier World Tattoo Contest next October.
“I’m telling you, you ought to get a tattoo,” Smitty pushes again. “It won’t cost you much. I’ll get Sparrow to do it for half price.”
I don’t tell him outright, but I’m reluctant to get inked. I falsely say that I’m thinking it over.
What if I didn’t like it? What would I do then? I’m stuck with it. You can’t scrub it off like a ball point pen mark. It’s forever.
“Step out on the ledge,” he pushes.
A trio of girls walk by and one of them smiles at Smitty. He grins back and waves to them.
We sit about talking and the conversation expectedly runs to our futures. We’re both only eighteen years old, but even so, crucial decisions bear down on us like predatory hawks. We’re caught in that dark shadow. Smitty says that he doesn’t want to end up like one of those old lifeguards working the beach and pier. He’s ready for a change. College is not in his future, at least for now. “What will you do then?” I ask.
“I talked to the Marine recruiters last week.”
Smitty’s older brother, Ted, served in the Army until he was killed overseas. “That’s a big step. You can’t just quit the service if you don’t like it. You need to be pretty certain.”
The waitress refills our ice tea glasses and slips Smitty a note, probably her phone number.
“Guess who got a tattoo last week?”
“Your mom?” I joked as though we were still in high school.
“Get serious. You’ll never believe it.” He stared at me for a second and then blurted out our old teacher, Mrs. M.
“Yes, she did. That old lady. The uptight, run-class-by-the-rule-book old lady.”
“If I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’.”
"Where? I mean, where on her body?"
"Do you want to see the video?”
“You’ve got a video of it?”
“Let me see it.”
“I don’t carry it around on me, you know. But I can put my hands on it.” Smitty knew he had me on his hook. “For ten bucks.”
Sparrow has to keep videos of his work, he explained. It’s to protect him in case someone complains or tries to say he touched her in an inappropriate way. Everybody knows Sparrow’s character, and to keep his character proper his wife works in the shop with him.
Smitty starts to laugh.
Everything has sand on it. Sometimes the gritty stuff. Maybe not always enough to notice, but it’s there nevertheless.
Back in the shop, I find Miss Tamaretta Eastgate, the proper British Widow, with a capital W, as she likes to be called, and Mayor Thomas still in the shop. She owns Nautical Antiques a few doors down the pier.
“Don’t leave the door open. The wind blows sand all around the store,” Ben chimes right on key. I remind him that the pier is surrounded by tons of the stuff. Everyone brings sand in. It’s on their shoes and clothes. A picture-perfect postcard family wandered in a few weeks ago. The three little tots carried their plastic buckets filled with shells and sand from the beach. Ben’s eyes trailed on the kids and buckets. He worried to the point that I thought he would have a heart attack. I remind him today that the pier is surrounded by unknown buckets and buckets of the stuff. Ironically, with all the sand around Cuckoo Land, the same sand is the enemy to most of our antique clocks and timepieces. The minute particles steal into the springs and levers of the mechanisms, either slowing down or stopping the works altogether. The special hourglass is immune, of course. It thrives on sand. Sand is its lifeblood.
“Hi, Little Ben,” the Widow greets me, knowing that the name irks me. “It’s the mayor’s seventieth birthday today and I thought I’d pick out something special. He needs a new watch.” She’s about the same age as Ben, maybe a few years younger. I once saw a picture of her in her shop. She was a young girl sailing on the Queen Mary from England to New York. She was a beauty in her earlier years, but now it’s not so obvious. She’s always nice and pleasant to me with the smile of a doting aunt.
I throw a smile and a thumbs-up birthday greeting to the mayor and then turn my attention to the computer. The old ones are as ancient as my parents, so I leave them to themselves. My desk is makeshift beach style: a wood door laid flat on two small file cabinets behind the counter. Besides the computer, the only up-to-date thing on the desk is the Salvador Dali melting clock hanging from the edge.
When my finger hits the “m” key, the capital M on the screen triggers a recall that the mayor is not really a mayor. He’s the unofficial dignitary of the pier. He’s an old man who makes a daily appearance on the boardwalk. Starched shirt, pressed sports coat, bright tie, and a fresh white carnation hanging from his lapel make up his ensemble. As far as I know, he has no business or purpose. He visits friends in shops, makes easy conversation, but mostly sits in the sun like a McDonald’s statue. On the unusual day when he is not sighted, talk ignites to acknowledge his absence. "Where is Mr. Thomas today?" chimes up and down the pier. People actually ask in earnest, as though the tide itself had missed a day.
Their conversation hits on the mundane topics of time and tide. The Widow repeats the old phrase “tide and time wait for no man” as though it bears some immediate sense. Someone says that a small tuna was caught this morning off the pier. It was let go so that one day it would grow to become adult size. The annual fall pier festival is scheduled for September. All the usual stuff. A calendar hangs on the wall with various dates filled in with upcoming events. August 18, my last day, remains blank.
Ben and the Mayor break open a pack of cards and begin playing. Then Widow Eastgate picks up the hourglass and turns it over to start the sand running. It’s merely a thread thin line of sand. The farther away you are, even from my desk, the sand is hardly apparent. From across the room it’s not possible to see the stream.
“Ben. Oh, Ben,” she summons his attention. “Are you finally ready to share this timepiece?” I’ve heard this bird song fluttering about before. The Widow has an old dusty bust of the Greek god Chronos that she’s ready to throw into the deal.
“You know the answer to that,” he warbles back without looking up from the game.
The Widow would like to knock the “h” off the hourglass and make it an “our” glass. Ben, on the other hand, seems to like the “h” where it is.
The sandglass is Ben’s special timepiece. “Without the ‘h’ it wouldn’t be an hourglass,” he’s figured. His Luther glass, as he calls it, is shaped like a traditional hourglass, with its two globe bulbs rounded. The apparatus is housed in a sturdy brass frame with silver ornamentation and German etching on it. It was the first valuable timepiece Ben had in the store when he opened the doors. He displays it proudly like a shop owner does a framed first dollar bill earned. His father brought the timer home from Germany after the war. No one has asked for it back. Ben’s story goes that it was made in Germany in the early seventeenth century and hung in a Lutheran church where it was fitted on the pulpit with wrought iron brackets. Churchgoers could watch the sand running through the glass to track how much time was left in the service. It was liberated from the cargo of a ship.
He plays a king. “As soon as you marry me, it’s yours,” Ben tolls, surprising all. The room falls quiet. An elongated silence hangs in the air until two cuckoo clocks squawk.
“Is that a proposal?”
“It sounded like one to me,” shouts the Mayor.
“I can’t be certain. Would you ask me again, Ben?”
“What? Again? I’m playing a game here. Can’t you see that?” He lays down his last card but loses the hand and the deal.
I don’t see the attraction of the sandglass. Sure, it’s as old as the sea, but it looks like someone salvaged it off the ocean floor with a haul of old cans and bottles. It’s hard to imagine that something 400 years old still works. The glass shows scratches from time. Maybe that’s normal. I’ve got a few scratches myself and I’m only an eighteen-year-old.
They ought to get together, I’m tempted to tell them. They’re a natural pair. He’s got old clocks and she’s got old collectibles in her shop. It’s a perfect blend. It’s so simple.
Stories don’t end so happily, or at least without nicks and some breakage. The very next day I started to become an expert in keeping time. What I mean by keeping time is not to be taken as the ordinary expression. I’m referring to the literal meaning. Keeping time, keeping it, like you keep a store of songs on an iPad. Mrs. M would mark it a grammatical gerund.
It was a second’s misstep. No, let me rephrase that. It was my own blundering carelessness that caused the mishap. It was worse than a misstep and mishap put together. The shop was empty, so I was surfing the net, checking out pictures of the university dorms, when Mrs. M surprised me. As I turned around, my arm swung too wide, striking the hourglass on the counter with a blow that wouldn’t have stunned even an out-of-shape lightweight boxer. But it was strong enough to KO the hourglass. The apparatus tumbled to the floor. Instinctively, I lunged to grab it like reaching for a falling baby. I stared as it bounced twice on the floor, giving off two plaintive shrieks. It was out cold. Fortunately, its sturdy brass housing kept the glass bulbs from shattering.
In the same instant that I bent down to retrieve the glass, Mrs. M rushed over to help. Our heads bumped as we clumsily leaned down at the same moment. I grabbed the glass and stared at it. Relief came when no damage showed. Thank goodness for the heavy brass frame. But just then, quixotically, a bird flew in front of me. What would a bird be doing in the store? It sat on Mrs. M’s bare left thigh. My eyes kept focusing closer on it like a camera eye zooming in. Even if I had wanted to stop myself I couldn’t. The small black image was hardly more than six inches away. It sat just below the hem of her white shorts. Was it a bruise, I next thought? But as I kept looking, the blurry image sharpened into the hazy outline of a bird, and then focused clearly into a raven. The small black bird sat on the outside of her thigh, some inches above the knee.
Even later, I remained nonplussed over why the tattoo and not the condition of the glass sent me into vertigo.
“Is it damaged?” she asks. “No dark tale from the fall I hope.”
“It’s all right.” My face feels splashed with sweat. Imbecilic, that is my thought. How could I just say the glass was all right? I don’t know why I blurted that out. She probably noticed that I hadn’t paid any attention to the glass.
“Good, you haven’t killed time,” her words assess, like a teacher’s or mother’s. She smiles and says, “I wouldn’t want you to experience something like the murder’s guilt in “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
We exchange glances for a moment, and then her hand touches my shoulder as she leans against me to brace herself to rise to her feet. Her smile feels wet across my face.
“Don’t let time get away from you,” she laughs as she leaves me alone cradling the hourglass behind the counter.
Five minutes later, I am still sitting on the floor behind the counter feeling foolish. Luckily, no customers have come in. My skull wasn’t cracked, but my composure sure was. The sandglass still rests in my hands as a scent of lilacs lingers. The glass appears unbroken when I finally hold it up to the light. “She said I didn’t kill it,” I breathe relief. But as I slowly turned the glass all the way around, what had been my great deliverance was instantly swept away. An ever-so-slight stream of sand leaks out of one of the bulbs. I press my thumb over the opening to halt the escape. The sharp roughness of the glass against my thumb is undeniable. A miniscule crack runs horizontally along the base of one of the glass bulb globes, and the tiny fracture allows sand grains to steal out. I turn the apparatus upside down and then grab some Scotch tape off the counter to seal the fracture.
Ben’s coveted timepiece, centuries old, I fret. He’s kept it safe and secure and I’ve broken it.
Soon a crowd of faces glare down, witnesses to my naked guilt. They have the look of condemnation. Then voices materialize, growing louder and louder, clear notes of accusatory ticking that morph into tolling convictions. Distinguishing their own verdict, the two grandfather clocks chime punishment knells in unison. Tick tock, tick tock. Then suddenly all of the clocks shout collectively like they're passing final judgment on my misadventure. They thunder like an eruption, a cacophony of screams and dirges.
What to do? What to do? The tape will be discovered, so I can’t leave it. I peel the strip away and find, amazingly, that the stream has dammed up. Good, maybe the crack is slight enough that the adhesive from the tape clotted the wound. But immediately I turn to get rid of the evidence on the counter. I grab a picture post card from the display and scoop up the small mound of spilled sand. A stubborn trace or mist tenaciously clings to the counter glass. I blow most of it away and then rub out the last traces with a wet cloth. At least for now, the evidence is erased.
That was just yesterday, and the situation has only worsened. That nick in time has thrown my life into abject chaos. My strategy for covering up the damage has hit a snag. The hourglass has returned to leaking sand, leaving small piles on the counter. I’ve had to keep cleaning it up. It’s no good just tossing these moments away because eventually the sand remaining in the glass will run low and Ben will notice the depletion.
It becomes clear that any real rescue plan has to include an element of ingenuity. What I decide on is to capture the escaped sand and reinter it in the bulb. This means pressing minute amounts of sand back through the crack in time. This is far from easy. I try tweezers, cotton swabs, and a jeweler’s tiny screwdriver. I get some of the sand back in, but there’s always that mist left on the counter, and this amount, however trifle, is always lost. How much lost sand constitutes what measure of time? Frankly, I don’t know. How many grains are a second? I have no way of knowing. I’ve learned that even a trifle amount soon adds up over time; it represents some amount of lost time. I can’t figure out how the amount of loss is equated to a measure of seconds or minutes. This is something I can study in a college physics class, I figure, trying to think calmly even though an intense headache is rioting around in my head.
Pushing sand back into the bottle has misfired. It’s produced added problems, those unexpected consequences everybody talks about. I’m responsible again. My clumsy efforts to put a stitch in time -- to jiggle, cram, push, and force the sand back have actually made the crack grow wider and longer. Now a faster stream of sand gushes out. The more effort I throw at the problem, the more effort is needed in the subterfuge.
To counter the runaway loss, I’ve clandestinely taken to bringing in new sand scooped up from the beach, my vast storehouse of free sand, and thus time. I’m reminded of the scene in the movie Shawshank Redemption where the hero, in his process to escape his fraudulent incarceration, takes crumbled bits of rock from his tunnel excavation in his cell outside into the prison yard to disperse it unnoticed. I am reversing the process. I’m sneaking the sand inside in my pockets.
I’m always watched by the clocks each time I leap into my act.
I’m sure it’s no zero sum game, in that what is lost and put back are never exactly equal.
I’m never sure how many grains to put back into the globe, as each grain is not a second of time. I’ve figured that out. Time grains have their own measure. It’s a different sort of time calculation all together than the tick tick of a timepiece. The grains are irregular in shape and size when examined under a magnifying glass, unlike those abstract seconds that all seem to be the same.
I do my best in estimating how many grains to put back, always tossing in a few extra for good measure. It’s a guess, a best guess, like a little extra salt and pepper on fried eggs. Common sense says that more is better. Yes, more time is better: more sand, more time. Any fool would accept that.
As much as I don’t want to face up to it, I know that my moment of confession, of course, has to come. I would have to face Ben, look into his big round clock face with its gentle smile, and own up about the damage. Confessions don’t come easy to me. As a matter of fact, I don’t know anyone who finds pleasure in confessions. To admit an error is to admit it to one’s very self. My dad has told me about odd souls who like to confess to one crime or another in order to gain attention. I’m not after that spotlight.
The hourglass is Ben’s life trophy, probably valuable to someone who appreciates such a contraption, a tie to his father, and the thing that attracts the Widow to him. This list is full of hazy stuff. I have no possessions of any great value, and family memories slip in and out of my head with little staying power. Girls merely ask me the time of day, and not for time itself.
I shouldn’t have been startled by Ben’s reaction. After my full admittance, including how the tragedy occurred, the failed cover up with the Scotch tape, and the new sand carried in from the beach, Ben shocks me.
“Matt,” he begins, and thank goodness he doesn’t call me Little Ben. His look is at first serious, but then he winks and laughs. “I’ve cracked that old Luther glass several times before. It’s fragile but fixable.” The next day he would dial up J. McTaggart, a friend who’s expert in sealing time in crystal bulbs.
Later, I walk across the street to Bessie’s Concrete Shoppe after closing time. My step has returned to its former buoyant stride. Karen and Emily are sitting at a shaded table and enjoying cups of ice cream. “Hi, Cuckoo Man,” grins Emily. I play act a pantomime to show that I have lost my hearing as a result of the clock’s noise.
“Hi,” Karen welcomes and invites me to sit down. “You’re funny,” she laughs. “I like the name Cuckoo Man. You aren’t offended, are you?”
“Not at all. I’m probably a little cuckoo after all.”
Emily, pleading her innocence, pipes up that Karen is responsible for coining the name. We sit back and talk about our different high schools, homes, and other mundane backgrounds. Karen shares that she wants to major in veterinary medicine. Emily is intent on interior design. For me, I tell them, in letters clumsily strung together, it’s PECS. “PECS is what I call my dilemma of choices,” I announce. “That’s physics, English, or computer science.” An acronym gives my problem a false sense of unity and sensibility. Acronyms also have a funny way of displacing the actual subject or problem, a sort of cover that hides the point at issue. ADD, for instance, is easier for many to relate to than the spelled out botheration attention deficit disorder. Just think what deleting the second D from MADD gets you. Obviously, MAD masks an abhorrent doom. MATT could easily be mad about time and tide.
Sometimes I wander from my story.
The small wrought iron table is covered with paper and books. There’s a date calendar with scrawlings in pen in the month of August. “We’re figuring out all the things we have to do before we go off to Gainesville,” says Karen as she makes more notes in the dwindling number of days. A worn copy of The Brothers Karamazov lies on the table near Karen’s folded hands. A bookmark separates the pages somewhere in the first few chapters of the thick Russian novel.
A herd of bicycles stampedes by, weaving in and out of runners, walkers, and strollers on the promenade. Two riders suddenly accelerate from the pack, racing each other toward the end of the pier.
“Those bicyclists,” she begins as her eyes follow them. “They look like they’re having fun. I loved riding my bike. When I was twelve, I rode mine throughout the neighborhood, covering miles and miles. I knew every block. I would fly as far as I could, until I was worn out.”
Karen and I are left alone, as Emily has walked off to do some last minute shopping at the bookstore, for a dictionary, she might have said. A stationary parade of lit candles line the railing of the Widow’s porch, her constant tribute to the night. She and Ben are sitting together in beach rocking chairs. I am pleased for these separate moments Karen and I have to ourselves.
“Are you going to miss being here at Cocoa Beach?” Karen smiles, her face lit by the last rays shot like arrows from some ancient bow.
Before I can answer, a siren blares as a rescue vehicle speeds in front of us toward the end of the pier. Word soon rolls back that a bicycle rider had been injured. The bicyclist was going so fast that he failed to brake and hit the wall, bouncing off the pier and falling into the ocean. Water rescue had to fish him out. “That happens about once a week,” I calm her. I then share with her my story of the hourglass.
Under the umbrella’s stretched out arms, seated with my back to Cuckoo Land, I catch myself staring at Karen’s innocent Becky Thatcher smile and her Monarch butterfly inquisitiveness. She raises her light brown eyes and smiles at me. The tide, whatever its motion now, is far off. The sun’s inexorable change speaks in a language of a different universe. High overhead, the moon’s ladder leans against the Big Dipper.
The candles are burning down.
“I would really like to see you when we get to the university,” I venture and reach across the table to touch her hand. The presence of a newfound now, undefined and unfettered by minutes and hours, stretches out like a dream clothed in purple wonder.
Something new that had begun to bud forth, on a particular day and at a particular time, now moved mysteriously outside of any such measure. The hammers of minutes, hours, even years, could not assail it.
Now, many years after that first day, those vivid memories remain a treasure sealed within me, never to be lost. I recall that night, thinking that after all I had not blended into the background of the wall of clocks when Karen happened into the shop. I had stood out. Surely, those clock faces that day were singing their august song that time will tell. Etched forever in every detail, Karen and I walk hand in hand the length of the pier, enjoying the pure evening air. The gigantic Ferris wheel, turning slowly but steadily clockwise, pulls us toward it.
Later, I carried the cuckoo clock she loved all the way to Gainesville.
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