Monique Hayes

 

Near Dusk

 

What’s the difference between a horologist and a tinker? A horologist works with many hands throughout the day, a tinker often with two in multiple machines. Byron Wheedle cannot deal with chaos unless it is with one kind of gadget. His customers in Seattle are surprised that he’s eighty-five and still at it. But this is a trade that’s survived long past him with an even lesser known title. To clean clocks, date watches, study the inner workings of timepieces, and adjust their mechanical lives while they’re in suspended animation may be the nearest occupation to a surgeon a clockmaker may know.

You must do each duty so carefully, instructs Byron to those willing to listen. This includes his seven-year-old granddaughter Lily. In today’s lingering sunlight, the ages of the accessories’ faces are clear under smeared surfaces and new dust. Lily lets her pinkie dance across a watch’s segmented band as Byron takes stock of the blemishes: the faulty iron-fingers that resemble twisted phalanges, the rusted screws around the circle, the faded corporation name that makes the whole look cheap. This watch’s wearer has neglected its upkeep like dozens of his daily customers. It will peter out within the week. He can make the most of its final minutes, spruce the device up as if it died in its halcyon hours rather than in its retiring state.

The nearby brochure bears the name of the old folks’ home Byron’s son Peter talks about with his girlfriend in hushed tones: Dawning Meadows. His son decided that he’d be unable to live alone as a widower, a cog that’s almost out of commission. The retirement building was secure, gray, the grayness stretching past the porch and enveloping the leafless pines. Their tour of the structure offered no reassurance. The cafeteria menu consisted of cube steak, pudding a la fuzz, mashed anything. Byron could hear the grinding of teeth, probably not natural and recently paid for, on gristle. Wheelchairs and walkers competed for sovereignty in the living room when residents raced to a TV with a crooked cable box. The bedrooms smelled like day-old bread. He escaped to the much-heralded meadow to collect leaves with Lily while Peter stood flummoxed in the foyer. Byron chose to stand with the bare trees that somehow live for hundreds of years in spite of such little effort.

“Are you going to summer camp without us, Grandpa?” asks Lily, touching the brochure.

Gold light from a pocket watch in the corner cases her cheeks like a halo that’s slipped down. She’s told him petty lies about her less innocent adventures— toffee theft, cuckoo bird decapitation, alarm clock intervention if the piece included a noisy animal she could rouse from sleep. But he can’t regulate his conscience. He will provide her with the truth in a subtle way.

“Your dad’s going to drive me somewhere this summer, yes,” says Byron.

“Summers are always too short,” says Lily, comparing her wheat-colored curls to the shade of the watch’s golden exterior.

“That they are,” says Byron.

He patiently created a playground of wood, of brass, of stainless steel with his steely eyes. The store was his personal land of opportunity. His buffered wood handiworks were erected with information from eras older than him, historical periods that left impressions on him, artisans who came from the great nations of Germany and Holland. An oak wall regulator releases marble milkmaids at noon, the mugs they bring to each other full of fake plastic froth. One inquisitive owl peeks out of a stump set in French brass enamel to signal Lily’s afternoon arrivals. Gossamer ducks, their delicate glass bills, squawking near closing time, skid across a crystal pond bordered by porcelain snow. These pleasurable venues kept him young for so long that he must’ve missed death unlocking his front door.

It came for her, and he would’ve rather it hadn’t. He was older than Phyllis by two months. Byron charmed his wife by saying he had “a degree in clockwise” and sealed the deal for a first date before the enchantment elapsed. As far as he could tell, it never did. She would always leave him with a wink before leaving for the pattern shop she ran for thirty years. Instead of missing her throughout the day, he put a bit of her spirit into his original inventions. She was exceptionally well-traveled unlike the rest of the Wheedles. It led to the faithful reading of Around the World in Eighty Days during her last moments. Byron crafted an air balloon in copper that he connected to a grassy lawn fashioned out of fancy brass trim. Her freckles bothered her more than anything, but they were his favorite feature of hers. Byron made sure to deck the bowing schoolchildren that exited his clocks’ carved mahogany doors with as many small dots as possible. With Peter’s help, he brought several clocks to the hospital. They were with Phyllis until the last cancer cell shut her down. She traced a circle in Byron’s palm. He believed it was an attempt to convey to him to keep on going like the items of his trade, keep on running while she was in an impenetrable place. Phyllis stayed so constant, like a pendulum, but pendulums do stop and suddenly.

Punctual robins spring from a walnut nest he’d just finished. They release a series of cheeps — Lily looking longingly at their fragile necks.

“Do you control the hours there too?” asks Lily.

“They fix the hours,” replies Byron.

Dawning Meadows runs on senior citizen standard time. On his second appointment, the director showed Byron and Peter the common in-house activities he could take advantage of on weekdays. Bingo possessed an attraction due to another sort of numbers he could play with, but the prizes of sewing needles and visor caps weren’t his cup of tea. Pottery allowed for some artistry, yet he only had thirty minutes to mold or form anything substantial. Worst of all, there was technology class. He sat behind the screen, powerless, as Peter and the director went over annual fees. What were these words, commands, pop-up windows? What did they want from him? Byron only wanted to handle the simple window of a digital watch, no less, no more.

He’s no longer able to keep silent in conversations regarding coffins. He’s intimate with the uses of wood and brass, but he doesn’t offer much advice on his future surroundings. As long as there’s velvet, insisted Byron. Silk’s too luxurious. Peter is obsessed with the casket. How long, how durable, how reliable. That’s how Byron knows he’s a horologist’s son, preparing metal for permanency. He missed being a crucial part of his mother’s arrangements. Her ashes were scattered in Puget Sound by Byron since Phyllis didn’t ask for a funeral. For some reason, she requested that Byron do it alone and that Peter shouldn’t be present. It’s clear that this decision haunts Peter and that he wouldn’t go through it twice. That’s why Byron is so patient with his depressing questions, the continual trips to Dawning Meadows, and the reassurances that this is the right way for a child to limit his father’s comings and goings. Peter pines for a far more visible loss.

“You cause them to stop here,” says Lily.

“Everyday,” says Byron. “I am Father Time.”

The particular moniker follows him throughout the community, said with relish or admiration by his frequent patrons. Even Lily utters it occasionally. The single instance where the label bothered him involved Peter and his neighbor, both men in their thirties. Seated at the picnic table, on a scorching Fourth of July, Byron fired up the grill for last year’s Wheedle family barbecue. Lily and her younger cousins leap-frogged over each other in their bathing suits. Peter’s girlfriend, Haley, put down a paper plate beside Byron’s but remembered rapidly that Phyllis wouldn’t be there to occupy the spot anymore. Byron set the charcoal ablaze with Peter coming up to take the tongs from him. Lacking any sense of tact, he said loudly, “Father Time really thinks he can do this.” A chorus of awkward laughs greeted the remark. Byron chuckled too, removed his charred apron, and went to the front of his house to kick the mailbox. His letters flew into the street. He’d stopped reading them, no matter who they were from, and why read the address he was moving away from? His authority was already shipped off.

He almost skipped town that night. Would he have wound up in a motel room with molting blankets or on Highway 99 listening to Lite FM until he couldn’t stay awake? But why bother? All roads would lead to the end of everything he appreciated. That’s why he remained in the backyard once the barbecue came to a close. He noticed the peach beams of a departing sun and the fireflies’ drunken flights. He saw Lily’s footprints in the smoothed down dirt. He still recalls the initiation of that day’s well-timed finale, how dusk can come in different degrees and at different moments. That moment was ruled by many conditions free from his control, yet he controlled where his feet waited until the conclusion.

“Grandpa, are you really going to leave?” asks Lily.

She steers herself away from the hibernating fowls within his clocks. Her gentle forearm brushes his elbow, as solid as the minute and hour hands that circulate on their daily journeys. If you add the travels of his own hands, you would have the sum total of his cares. His fingers are able, agile, attentive, and cease to pause. Byron slides the brochure into the trashcan and then hits the function key of a bruised alarm clock to hear its thrilling hum.

“No,” says Byron. “Not while I’m running.”

***

moniqueliteraryMonique Hayes received her MFA from the University of Maryland College Park. Her work appears in Midway Journal, Prick of the Spindle, From the Depths, Touch: The Journal of Healing, Mused, Birmingham Arts Journal, among others. She was awarded a 2015 Writers Residency from Wildacres Retreat.

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