Carrying the town’s three clocks taken from the town square, the marketplace, and the church, we three walked single file. I was in the middle. Roy, taking the front, held his clock almost contemptuously in one hand. The young people don’t understand the old ways—but then, neither did I, really.
“I can see cleaning the clocks,” Roy said. “But I don’t pretend it’s some holy thing.”
“Think of it as preventative maintenance,” I said, “freeing the clocks of grime, the mechanized anomalies, and synchronizing them.”
He half-turned to speak. “And what’s that going to do, again?”
“We think,” I said, emphasizing the doubts we all have, “that if the clocks are washed our thoughts and actions won’t be overwhelmed by the past that paralyzes us, persists in our thoughts.”
“Or the past that disappears,” Bones said. He shuffled forward, the grinding of his joints sounded like shaken dice.
“You old guys have lived too long,” Roy added. “That’s all. Old people forget or live in fantasy. No hocus-pocus about washing the clocks is going to cure that.”
“No cure for time,” Bones said, stopping and wiping his brow. He had issues with forgetting. The grimy clock he held ticked over his chest like a mechanical heart.
Roy shook his head. Perhaps he was right. Bones and I were aging and using a suspicious mythology to help alleviate the unpleasant truths about our bodies and our minds. Can it hurt, I almost asked Roy, to make a ritualistic patina from a janitorial duty?
We went through town. It was a collection of huts set on irregular streets, graded so that resistance to your foot came at odd moments, sending a juddering sensation up to your knees or causing you to lurch. People had tried, through photographs of the same street taken on different occasions, to prove that the terrain actually changed from day to day, though the research proved inconclusive. The uneven terrain and the town’s three clocks, two running forward, one back, none in sync, made it a place where we made arrangements by the sun and shadows rather than by the high-mounted, treacherous numerals.
Looking back, I saw the town’s few ramshackle buildings, and in one of them I saw the old man’s bearded face as he watched from a window.
This was his idea. I had come to him with my problem. Greeting me from a hovel of piled books, dirty dishes, and pictures hung crookedly, he sat in a plush chair whose worn-out springs offered little resistance to even his wizened form, giving the impression of a diver about to be swallowed by a giant clam. He was the town’s grey eminence and could even remember that distant time when the clocks all ran forward and told the same time. He knew of course that the clocks were no longer in sync, but he didn’t know of our crisis, particular among old people, the flood of false memories and a paralyzing nostalgia. It had become not uncommon to find someone standing slack-jawed on a street corner in an attitude that, in happier times, had belonged to a drug addict. Some were overwhelmed with memories. Others, like Bones, felt their memories threatened by a quicksand of oblivion. My problem was causation. I felt every act weighed down by those that came before it, a deterministic chain that led to one thing and one thing only, stripping the present of all spontaneity.
“Am I doing something as a free act or as a pre-determined one?” I asked, as I explained my problem. “I don’t know.”
“My actions,” I tried to clarify, “do not provide the comfort of familiarity but the onus of a pre-determined repetition. The simplest acts seem wearisome and dubious.”
The old man had raised the molting wing of an eyebrow. “Dubious?”
“Am I making a free choice or only one determined by proceeding acts?” I reached out to the table that separated us. “When I pick up this jar, for example, and I take a drink—”
His hand restrained me. With an expression between a smile and a grimace, he said, “I have difficultly getting and going to the bathroom, and so I sometimes…” He indicated the jar, which indeed didn’t have the smell of low-quality beer, which I had first mistaken it for.
I finished without visual aids. When I was done, he leaned back and his brown eyes glistened with cataracts and mucus as a draught of memory brought the smallest smile. “They called it the curse of déjà vu,” he said, “back in the days when the past first overwhelmed the present. If I were you, I’d do what they did then.”
“What did they do then?”
“The dowsing of the clocks, that’s what they called it.”
“Can you say that again?”
Mnemonic rheum filling his eyes, he told me a theory that had made the rounds when he was young. It was the idea that this town didn’t exist on its own but within the mind of an artist, someone with a sense of the visual and a flair for eccentricity, both of which fused in the imagining of this town and the clocks that existed both as things-in-themselves and as metaphors.
“Metaphors for what?”
“For time and memory,” he said, as if that were obvious. Seeing my difficulty with this approach, he added, “Memories accumulate. It’s what they do. Eventually, there gets to be a storage problem, a filing problem. Something about the washing of the clocks eases this issue. At least, that’s what they did, back in the day. The elders believed that the clocks not only marked time, they accumulated it. They are ratcheted to our memories.”
“Is that why the one in the town square runs backward because memories go both ways, forward and back in time?”
“I’ve heard that theory,” he said.
“And this, this dowsing of the clocks, it works?”
“It worked that time,” he said. He reached into his pocket and produced a small fob watch with a tarnished gold casing. “If you go, throw this one in too.”
“I didn’t know anyone owned their own watch, I thought it was illegal.”
“I’m old and don’t care. Anyway, it doesn’t work.”
Now I touched the watch in my coat pocket as we left town and neared a flat obsidian slab whose original purpose, whether religious, civic, or business, had been long abandoned. In the middle of the slab a single, leafless, dry stalk, looking more like a twisted coat hanger than anything vegetative, stuck out. We passed it and neared the brownish beach under a pale wash of sky, colored an improbable mango. Beyond, the wave-less waters didn’t move, except for the gentle scouring motion of underwater currents. A soft wind blew from no discernible direction. We reached the shore.
“I suppose we have to chant something,” Roy said, with a smirk that was beginning to irritate me.
“No,” I said, “we let the tide do the work.”
“This is the part I don’t understand,” Bones said. “We’re not really washing the clocks.”
“It’s what the old man said, let the water do the work.”
We let the clocks slide into the water. They sunk and rolled over in unison, and the times they displayed—12:30, 6:55, 8:02—seemed to match the odd architecture and street grading of our town. Sinking, the clocks lost their shape, became flaccid as rubber shower mats. As they did we saw them do a gentle dance, a synchronized sway as they turned below the water, some shedding their numerals as they moved to the rhythm of underwater currents. As if to reflect its agitation, the still water stirred and small wavelets turned over at our feet.
Something happened inside me, or maybe outside: I felt causation somehow detach itself from my perception of the world. Spontaneity returned, I sensed, the lockstep of cause-and-effect broken. Every act was unique, particular, sui generis. Meanwhile, the clocks moved like a small school of fish, turning with the current. Even Roy lost his cynicism, watching this display.
“Man, I feel like jumping in with them,” he said.
I told him what the old man had said. “We’re supposed to stay out of the water while this is happening. The waters become toxic while the clocks are swimming.”
Roy rolled his eyes. “And what’s going to happen if we do go in?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “That was the warning the old man gave me. When the clocks return to us then, and only then, is it safe to go into the water.”
Slowly the clocks moved like shy children in our direction. “They are coming back,” I said, “just like the old man said they would. Wait for them. Stay out of the water. When they reach the shore, we’re supposed to dry them and stretch them.”
I remembered the fob watch. I pulled it out of my pocket.
“What’s that?” Bones said.
“It belonged to the old man.”
“That’s a beauty,” he said. “Wait—”
I tossed it a couple of yards. It splashed, and I waited for it to duplicate the gentle, undulating motion of the other clocks, but instead it dropped and didn’t rise from the shoreline’s soft sand, covered by shallow water. It glinted as the sand began to cover it.
“Well,” I said, “he expected it to sink. I’ll just have to tell him it did.”
“You tell him that,” Roy said. He stepped into the water. Reaching down, he plucked the gold watch and returned to us. The silent watch ticked loudly. “I thought you said it didn’t work. It works.” He opened the watch and a little water spilled out. He showed me the moving second-hand. “I got a watch,” he added. “I got my own watch. I got my own time right here. None of those damn clocks that don’t work right will ever apply to me. I got my own time. I don’t need to look to the center of town.” He closed the casing.
The drooping clocks beached and waited. They were supposed to be air-dried and later stretched, according to the old man. We draped them over our arms and returned to the single obsidian slab and the stick-like branch growing from it. A soft wind blew. Looking back, I saw how it obliterated the footsteps we had left behind. I stepped up on the flat obsidian surface and draped a clock over the spindly, single branch. A few falling drops evaporated on the surface.
“I don’t feel very good,” we heard Roy say. “I don’t feel like myself.”
His face had swollen and seemed to be consuming the rest of his body, while the clock he carried had settled on his forehead like some cursed shroud, forcing him down to the sand. As he fought, futilely, looking like a man stuck in a large bag, the fob watch flew from him and landed on the sand. A jeweled icing of ants appeared on its surface. Seeing them on the casing, I thought I saw time and memory consumed before my eyes.
And Roy: Roy was now a folded dock lying on the sand, only that prominent nose and eyelashes identified that flaccid timepiece as our young companion. Well, I thought, he was kind of an ass.
“He lived on my street,” Bones said. “I remember that now.”
It was all we could summon by way of eulogy.
“We’re supposed to let them hang until they’re dried all the way through.”
We walked away. I took a last look back and saw Roy persisting as a face on the sand, supporting a clock. Over him draped one clock with two others nearby and the fob watch crowned with ants. Damn, I thought, that would make one weird picture.
GARRETT ROWLAN is a retired sub teacher from Los Angeles. His novel, To Die, To Sleep is published by James Ward Kirk and is at Amazon. A second novel, The Vampire Circus, will be published soon.
Image: geralt via Pixabay