I am sitting at the desk in my office, listening to the syncopated rhythms of my family of mechanical clocks, waiting for Judy Brakage to arrive. During the week, when the rustle and chatter of clients fills the empty spaces between the quick dry sounds of ticks and the deeper and more resonant sounds of tocks, I hardly notice them. But today, Saturday morning, they sound like a hail storm. All forty-two clocks — the glass-domed Atmos, driven by ethyl chloride in a brass bellows, the cesium atomic clock, even the usually unreliable Coca-Cola clock (circa 1943, liberated from a garage sale in Truth or Consequences) — claim that it is 10:35 a.m., May 20th, in the Gregorian year 2007.
Our conversation last night was brief. She was in the area. She wanted to say hello. I suggested my office. 10:30.
For all of my talk about the fluidity of time, I still get anxious when people are late. I get up and walk over to the window and pull up the blinds. The view this morning is spectacular. The whole Sangre de Cristo Valley, coarsely stippled with olive-green junipers and piñons, is exploding with the colors of spring. The Los Alamos ridge, twenty miles across the valley, looks turquoise against the pane of blue sky. The physicists are hard at play up there by now. One of my clients, the one who gave me the atomic clock, spends his Saturdays at the lab, ramming subatomic particles together like a child with an erector set, monkeying around with time and space. I tell him that when he invents the time machine, I’m the first in line.
“To the future, or the past?” he asks me.
“What would you change?”
I think for a while. “Nothing.”
“Au contraire. Your presence alone would change everything.”
A fragrant breeze caresses my cheeks, stirring hibernating memories. I’m remembering another sunny morning in the merry month of May, down on the NMSU campus in Las Cruces. I’m walking on my six-year-old shadow atop the backyard walls teeming with red ants, arms out like a jet so I won’t fall into someone else’s yard.
Dandelion filaments drifted through the warm morning air as Georgie Krenshaw, the birthday boy, walked atop the backyard walls on his way to the lime-green cinderblock cottage where Kevin Brakage and his mom Judy lived. He was wearing his reversible suit — Navy Blue outside, Kelly Green inside — and the Sesame Street sneakers that he had spilled a can of alphabet soup on the day before. Georgie was thinking about being six, about how old he was getting. Thinking that he now only had ninety-four years left to live.
“Georgie! My sweet little Georgie! How old are you today?” Judy Brakage, with her fluorescent orange toenails poking out beneath her green corduroy bellbottoms, always had a bottle of Sprite in her hand. Like Georgie’s mom, she was divorced and getting her masters in physics.
“I’m six and I know how to tie my shoes.”
“What a smart little man you are.” She picked Georgie up and twirled him around and danced with him into the house. She and Georgie liked to sing rock-n-roll songs together. Their favorite was ‘Twentieth Century Fox’ by The Doors. “No tears, no fears, no ruined years. No clocks. She’s a twentieth century fox! Oh yeah yeah yeah.”
Kevin’s house smelled of sugary cereals, cat food, cat shit, and human piss. Kevin was still a bed-wetter, even at six. The smell was so thick you could see it, a dark, olive haze, the color of the couch in their living room. It was damp and dark and green in that house. Plants everywhere, like a swamp.
Kevin’s mom made Georgie close his eyes as she wrapped something plastic around his wrist. “Now open your eyes,” she said.
It was a Mickey Mouse watch.
“Now,” she said, picking Georgie up and setting him in her lap, “before I teach you how to tell time, it is my duty as a scientist to make sure you appreciate the power I’m giving you.”
Georgie smiled at his shiny new watch, wrapped around his wrist just like a man’s. Now he could deflect bullets like Wonder Woman.
Kevin’s mom’s voice went whispery. She looked into Georgie’s eyes and said, “Everyone but you and me, and some other very smart people, thinks that time is a line. But it isn’t. Time is a ball.”
Georgie had no idea what she was talking about, but it sounded like a secret, so he tried to remember it.
Then Kevin’s mom told him what the numbers meant and what the big hand and the little hand did, and she quizzed him by turning the hands to different times until Georgie was telling time all by himself.
After their lesson, she asked Georgie if he would do her a favor. She rested her forearm face-up along the arm of the couch. Her veins were delicate blue rivers pulsing beneath her pale skin. She reached around Georgie with her other hand, extended her pointer finger, and placed it in the bend of her elbow. She slowly dragged her finger along a vein, down to her wrist, ever so slowly.
“Follow my finger with yours,” she said. Georgie lifted his left hand, the one with his new watch on the wrist, and followed her finger with his. “That helps me to fall asleep at night,” she said, and Georgie felt magic coming from his fingers.
When their fingers reached the bend in her elbow again, Kevin’s mom took her hand away, and Georgie’s finger slowly sailed up and down the blue-green river, up to the valley of her elbow, back down to the bridge of her silver wristwatch.
She closed her eyes.
I walk back to my desk and sit down. The mid-morning light yawns across the desk calendar, forever stuck on June 1998 for no reason other than that I’ve grown fond of all of the blue and black ink-doodle creatures I’ve drawn there over the years. They have huge round eyes, pointy noses and twiggy limbs; they live in a scribbled jungle of phone numbers, names, squiggles, slashes, and words like “limitations” and “transmogrify,” words yanked out of trains of thought and sentenced to meaninglessness. I pick up a ball-point pen and draw a little creature with big round ears. I put down the pen and fondle my mustache.
I glance at my watch.
10:37. I could use something stronger, but I settle for a soda.
I have a neat old soda pop machine in the hallway. It dispenses bottles from a vertical groove behind a narrow glass door. I open the door and listen for a moment to the gentle whirring of the refrigeration fans and the tinkle of the thick glass bottles against their frosty chutes. Bottles are harder to come by these days, so I go down to Mexico twice a year and stock up on Coke and Fanta and Sprite. I love the thick beveled bottles that Sprite comes in. When I drink from them, I drink from my childhood.
I put a quarter into the slot and grab the bottle by its spiky little head. The bottles behind it clamor and clink into the next slot when I yank it out. I wedge the cap under the opener and push down on the bottle. Pop!
A gossamer mist hovers over the mouth of the bottle as I take the first stinging sip and head back into my office.
Georgie was so proud of his ability to tell time that he would stand out on the sidewalk and tell each person that passed what time it was. After they kindly thanked him, he’d say, “That will be ten cents, please,” and, more often than not, the stranger would stop and fish around in a pocket for the dime and happily hand it over. “You may pass,” Georgie would say.
Between customers he liked to think about ways of improving his product. If time was a ball, he reasoned, then it could be cut in half, or melted, or even lost. Maybe he could find a way to stop time whenever he wanted to, and his mom wouldn’t have to get up and go to school in the morning. She could stay in bed, and they could spend the whole day together.
On the mornings when his mom went to classes, Georgie would sit on the curb and watch her walk through the park across the street, scattering grackles as she went, shrinking and shrinking until she reached the door of O’Donnell Hall and disappeared inside. Then he would turn the hands of his watch to twelve o’clock, hoping to make her turn around and come back. But she never did.
When Kevin’s mom was at classes too, Georgie would go down to Kevin’s house and they would invade her bedroom and play pirates on her queen-size waterbed. They jumped up and down and made tidal waves and yelled, Shiver me timbers! and Thar she blows! and Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum! Kevin always wore his Aquaman pajamas until his mom came home and changed him. He was a thumbsucker. His eyes were like his mom’s, the color of canned peas, eyes bent on seeing what was inside of everything. No toy of his ever lasted more than a week. If there was a flashlight in the house you could be sure that its batteries were split open and boiling in the sun.
One day, not long after Georgie’s birthday, the moms started talking behind closed doors, and soon the doors had grubby little earprints on them. Georgie’s mom told Kevin’s mom that having another baby was the last thing Judy needed. What about her career? She was thirty years old; if she didn’t get her degree now, she may never get it. “I may never get another chance to give Kevin a brother or sister.” “Kevin needs a mother,” Georgie’s mom said. “Your time is already spread too thin. That asshole isn’t giving you any child support.” “But Kevin will be in school next year.” “Judy Judy Judy. You can’t have this baby. Look at me. You can’t have this baby. Where are your senses?”
Georgie told Kevin that babies came from the future. There was a planet made of diapers where only babies lived. The trees grew rattles. There were oceans of milk and marshes of mashed peas.
“Great big tornadoes come and suck babies up into the air and blow them to our time,” Georgie said. “That’s why they cry.”
“You’re a big dummy,” Kevin said. “Everyone knows that babies come out when you go ca-ca. That’s why you look before you flush. So you don’t flush away a baby. They only come after you touch a girl.”
Georgie wondered if it was because he had touched Kevin’s mom’s arms when she taught him how to tell time that she was going to have a baby; but he didn’t tell Kevin.
“There’s really a baby in there?” Georgie asked Kevin’s mom when she finally broke the news to the kids. “How can it breathe?”
“What does aquatic mean?”
“It’s living like a fish inside my body.”
“You have fish in your tummy?”
Kevin didn’t want the baby to come. He asked Georgie to help him stop time. Georgie said it would be an honor. As long as Kevin promised never to call him a dummy again. They shook on it.
Georgie took off his watch and placed it face-up on the sidewalk. Kevin handed him the hammer.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” she says. The frosted glass door closes behind Judy Brakage. She’s wearing a long blue skirt and a cream-colored blouse. A pair of reading glasses hang from a thin silver chain around her neck. Her hair is going gray.
“I half expected you to still be wearing green bellbottoms,” I say as I get up from my desk. We embrace somewhat stiffly. She stares at me for a moment, lost in her own memories, I presume. Then she says, “Thank you, George, for making time in your schedule.”
“Don’t be silly.”
She walks officiously around the office, looking at all of the clocks with a child-like smile. She stops in front of the Mickey Mouse watch on the mantle. She picks it up and looks at it. She glances in my direction.
“Didn’t I give you one of these when you were little?”
“Yes, you did. For my sixth birthday. And you taught me how to tell time with it, too.”
She laughs. “This isn’t the same watch, is it?”
I look at it as if thinking. My pulse has quickened.
“No,” I say quietly.
She sets the watch back on the mantle and looks at some more clocks. “I’ve never quite understood exactly what it is you do, George. Helen tried to explain it to me, but I didn’t get it. What is it you do here, with all these clocks?”
“Can I get you anything to drink. A Sprite, perhaps?”
“No thank you.”
She is uncomfortable. That much is obvious. She is keeping her back to me, looking at the clocks.
“The clocks are just a hobby,” I say as I sit down on the corner of my desk. “Essentially, I’m a psychotherapist. Patients are referred to me when their path to recovery is obstructed by an unhealthy conception of time.” This seems to pique her interest. “I try to get them to think of time not as a line, but as a fluid sphere, in which the past, present and future are all swirling together simultaneously, all interconnected. This disabuses them of the notion of direct causality between their past actions and their present predicaments.”
“Boy,” she says, “criminals would love you.”
I’m about to babble my standard rebuttal when she faces me and says, “I’d like a session.”
I look at her. Fine wrinkles have scored the skin around her eyes and mouth. Her pale green eyes stir something up in me.
“Yes, now. Is that alright?”
I glance down at my desk calendar, as if to confirm an opening.
I direct her to the chaise longue. She crosses her ankles and puts her hands in her lap. I notice that she isn’t wearing a watch. I sit down in my chair beside her. The clocks are chattering away like an excited Geiger counter.
One Saturday morning Georgie got an idea. He sprinted down to Kevin’s.
“I know how to stop time!” Georgie held up a red Superball and went inside.
Kevin and Georgie trotted into the kitchen. A Tupperware bowl of soggy cereal sat atop the table with a spoon sticking out of it.
“Heat up the oven,” Georgie commanded.
Kevin turned it to broil.
“Get us a pan.”
Kevin pulled a biscuit pan out of the sink, collapsing the carefully balanced pile of dirty dishes. Georgie set the ball in one of the biscuit depressions and shoved it into the oven.
Kevin and Georgie ran back to the living room to wait.
“If time stops will it stop us, too?” Kevin asked.
“Yes. But we can still watch TV.”
Soon a funny smell came from the kitchen.
“I think the time machine is ready,” Georgie said.
They ran into the kitchen and opened the oven door. Stinky black smoke billowed out. Kevin closed the oven door and looked at Georgie with fear in his eyes. Then the smoke detector went off, a shrill, piercing scream. Kevin’s mom came running out of her room, wrapping her pink bathrobe around her body.
“Kevin, what the hell is going on!” She opened the oven door, then closed it and opened the back door.
“Goddamnit, Kevin. Go open the front door,” she hollered.
A man came out of Kevin’s mom’s bedroom in pajama bottoms, scratching his hairy belly.
“What’s going on?”
“They’ve put something in the oven.”
He pulled a chair out from the table and stood on it beneath the smoke detector and fanned it with his hand until it shut off.
“What’s in the oven?” he asked Kevin.
“Ask Georgie,” Kevin said.
Georgie said: “Time, sir.”
Kevin’s mom put on an oven mitt and pulled out the pan. The thick red pool of rubber was bubbling and hissing. She threw the pan into the sink and turned on the cold water. Time billowed up in a cloud of steam, but it did not stop.
I begin by asking her if she is aware that she was fifteen minutes late for our appointment. She chuckles. Yes, she is aware. Does this trouble her at all, or does she feel that fifteen minutes is a negligible amount of time? She says she hadn’t intended on being late, but someone had called when she was on her way out the door, and she lost track of time.
“Did it just slip by? Or did you make a conscious decision while on the phone to let the conversation take its natural course?”
She thinks for a moment.
“No, I think it really just slipped by.”
I cross my legs and interlace my fingers around my knee. I think for a while before asking the next question.
“Did knowing that you hadn’t seen me in thirty-one years, since I was little, in any way make you nervous about seeing me today?”
“I suppose so, yes.”
“Why do you think that is?”
She looks at her fingers. After a while she sighs.
“I’m not sure why I wanted to see you after so many years. On this day, of all days. It isn’t fair to you.”
My memory of that day is fractured. I seem to remember my mom on the phone, her long string of no’s, each one getting louder. I see her running out of the house, telling me to stay there. I hear sirens. Judy is sobbing hysterically on our couch. I remember looking up at our old yellow cuckoo clock and seeing the time. 11:01. I remember Judy taking me into her arms and clutching me so hard I began to cry. Nothing else.
I never saw Kevin again. He went to live with his father in Oregon. Judy returned to Wisconsin to live with her mother. Every now and then my mom would tell me of some news in Kevin’s life, conveyed to her through Judy: his high school graduation, his marriage, the birth of a son, and finally his death in a botched bank robbery at the age of twenty-four.
“Every year, as the days approach,” she says, “I tell myself that this time it’s going to be different. I am older and wiser. I will see it all as part of something larger than myself. But it never happens that way. All I want to do on this day is die.”
I turn my head and stare out the window. Time is slowing to a syrupy ooze, pouring around and back onto itself, sealing the past in a transparent resin. I hear myself telling her that there is beauty and joy yet in her life to come, but it is to myself that I say these words, to smother the thing I cannot say.
I don’t know how or when the image got lodged in my mind, or why it has never gone away. Two small left hands, one of them wearing a shattered Mickey Mouse watch, are pushing a Teddy Bear into a sleeping baby’s face, and holding it there forever.
“Will it always hurt so much, George?”
The gong of the grandfather clock is the first to begin the eleventh hour. Within seconds all of the clocks are dinging and donging and ringing and chiming in a riot of bells.
Judy and I look at each other awkwardly and wait, for what seems like eternity, for the ringing to stop.
© James Terry
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James Terry has published or has stories forthcoming in Fourteen Hills, The Dublin Review, Third Coast, and in the on-line journals 42Opus, Juked, Dark Sky Magazine, and Pindeldyboz. He was shortlisted for the O.Henry Prize Anthology (1997). He presently lives in Dublin, Ireland.
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