The fall caught him completely off guard.
He had been walking the very same path he had taken daily to the mailbox for the last seventy-one years. Seventy-one years without incident.
Surely it was because of the heavy rain from the night before. It had flooded the earth, making the dirt driveway sink and swell in unfamiliar spots under his feet. That, plus the arthritis that had been toying so mercilessly with his joints. One day, he could feel like new- a good ten years younger. The next, he would wake up a corroded mass of junk.
These justifications made the accident no less humiliating, though. For a moment Max remained immobile, reeling in his pathetic state upon the ground, with dark, dense globs scattered upon his brow, his jowls, and their silver whiskers. Once he established that there were no witnesses and, miraculously, no apparent broken bones, his composure returned and he set about the task of bringing himself upright.
First, he rolled his scrawny frame on to his right side, wincing as his ribs began to make contact with the ground. With this done, he gingerly bent both knees. Then he stuck out his hands, planted them in the mud, took a deep breath and pushed. On the first try, he was unable to get the right arm out to back up the left and tumbled right back down. Furious, he let out a guttural bleat of protest and finally managed to foist himself upon all fours. While he reveled in this teetering victory, he saw it.
There, amongst the sludge to the left, a glint of metal reflected the light of the midday sun. A coin? He reached out and wiped off the grooved surface of the object with his fingertip, taking in the softly rounded slope of its edges. No. It was something much bigger. He traced an outline in the dirt and instantly knew.
A memory hit him with the startlingly detailed relief of a photograph: his fledgling reflection pressing against the glass of the hutch in his father’s office, eyes fixed upon the Illinois 16-size Sangamo Special railroad pocket watch standing at attention within a velvet-lined case upon the lower shelf.
On weekday afternoons, while his father was at work in the shop, he would stand there motionless for as much as an hour at a time, absorbing every detail of the design on the front of that watch’s brass hunter case. He would begin with the two meaty leaves unfurling downwards and outwards just below the winding stem, which sheltered a small and simple coat of arms in the center. Then he would follow the mighty V that served as a frame for the bottom and side edges of the shield. After that, on to the four vertical stalks of filigree which rolled to the lower edge of the case then suddenly sprang up and coiled inwards, like luxuriously wavy locks recovering from the tug of a comb. Next, the sides, with their perfectly symmetrical garlands of holly dangled and finally, on the left and right edges, where an arrowed flourish coaxed the eye back upwards and inwards to the glowing crest at the heart of the scene. It was the perfect stage for the innumerable medieval battles and rescues he loved to conjure up in his head.
He had reveled in countless opportunities to hold and fiddle with the other 7 pocket watches that shared lodging within the confines of the cabinet. Over the years he had memorized (and eventually began to understand) the varying components of each one’s interior: some had single-sunk dials and others, double; some possessed 23-jewel movement whereas others were of only 15-jewels; some were adjusted to four positions and others six. And so on.
But he was never allowed to take out this particular watch and examine it firsthand.
It was at 8 years of age when had dared to ask why. To muster up enough courage, he had first lingered in the hallway, staring a photo of his radiant and youthful progenitor at the gates of a garishly red brick factory. After he marched into the office and made his inquiry in a quavering voice, his father had closed his eyes, sighing wearily. He then pressed his hand heavily upon his son’s shoulder, and said:
“My boy, aside from bringing your mother and me together, this watch has done nothing else but create disaster in this world. I’m afraid it is best admired from a distance.”
With that, all discussion was halted. Dad administered a pat on his head and turned back to his bookkeeping.
His mother was his only recourse for further explanation. The next morning, a Saturday, he had crept to the tiny kitchen and anxiously perched on the stool next to the most generous strip of countertop in the room. He waited for the wiry woman to pause her kneading and smile in his direction, thereby inviting another one of his many interrogations about the mysteries of life. As he spoke, her hands began to work the dough with a terse vigor, pressing and pulling the mass with an uncharacteristic roughness. He wondered how this treatment might affect the outcome of the cinnamon rolls.
“Your father was a very gifted watchmaker, as you know. He helped to design one of the most accurate lines of pocket watches to be used by railroad employees in this country. The one you are asking about, it was also one of those watches. But then he made some adjustments to it…”
Her energy slowed and her gaze became lost in an image that seemed more present in her mind than in the hushed neighborhood outside the window. The mound of dough had been tucked into a bowl under a flour sack towel and moved to the warmest corner of the kitchen to do its rising. As she fumbled to replace the wedding ring on her finger, he grew impatient and drew in a breath to plead for more information. Yet just then she continued on:
“You see, he had become interested in finding a way to power those watches with something other than winding them by hand. He was interested in the work of Thomas Edison and his development of alkaline batteries for use in automobiles. But he needed something smaller to generate the electricity needed. Then he thought of the human heart.”
Max had involuntarily raised his hand to touch his chest; somehow hoping that physical contact with the organ would alleviate his confusion. “The… heart?”
“Yes, darling. The rhythm of our heart creates an electrical current. It’s what allows the blood to be pumped through our bodies. What is more, it is located right underneath the breast pocket of men’s suits, right where pocket watches were stored. It seemed a perfect match.”
“Did it work?” His mounting excitement had edged him closer and closer to the edge of the stool and the pressure on his tailbone had become unbearable. He used his toes to lift himself back and upwards as his hands finished readjusting his body upon the seat.
“Well, yes, and no. Yes, in the sense that the heart did power the watch. No, in the sense that the watch did not keep time as it should. And the results were disastrous.”
“Tell me, Momma, what happened?” He realized he was shouting at her.
She jumped, spilling some of the coffee she was pouring into her chipped cornflower teacup for the glaze. She scolded him for a moment through a plunge of her eyebrows. But soon she went on:
“It is impossible for me to forget each and every detail of that day. In order to test the accuracy of these adjustments to his watch, on June 16 of 1925, your father entered Union Station and boarded the 8:15 am Lackawanna Railroad passenger train from Chicago to Hoboken. Soon after a stop in Rockport, the train began to accelerate out of control and reached a record speed of 300 mph before derailing. Fifty-one people died, including all but one of the train crew. Your father was that one. ”
“But what did his watch have to do with that?” He imagined the cars randomly folded up alongside the track, black smoke fleeing from their interior.
“Honey, I lived in the town where the accident happened. I was a nurse at the local hospital. I met your father when they called us out to treat the injured. He swears the watch was responsible for everything.”
The nagging caw of a crow in the birch tree at the side of the house yanked the old man out from his profound state of recollection. His knees throbbed from the strain of kneeling and a tingling had settled into his calves and feet. With the watch clenched in one hand, he used the other as a support while he finagled himself back onto his feet. It was not a graceful endeavor, but it worked. He limped back into the house, having forgotten completely about retrieving that day’s mail.
Once he crossed the threshold, a mean weariness sifted into him. It was as though his limbs were stuffed with sacks of wet cement, solidifying more and more by the minute. Somehow he managed to drag himself to the living room and drop his stiff frame upon the equally worn-out couch.
As his eyes closed, his mind slipped backwards again in fuzzy flashes.
The hutch. The stolen key to the hutch. The waning afternoon light delivering a final, complicit wink upon the keyhole that he nervously jabbed with the silver-toothed blade in his hand. The triumphant click of the rotating plug within the depths of the lock’s hull. And the cabinet door, which sighed as he coaxed it open along its track.
The first moments he had cradled the watch in his palm, raising it to within inches of his freckled nose, he had to fight off a crushing wave of disappointment. Yes, the engraving was impressive, but otherwise it was not terribly different from all the other ones he had held. Somehow he thought that if seen up close, he would immediately perceive its extraordinary nature.
Then he turned the pocket watch over. In the back of the hunter’s case lay two tiny metallic buttons, one of a silvery hue and the other of copper. They glared at him, rebuking him for his lack of faith and at the same time, luring him closer.
His father had come home early. The shock and magnitude of that voice sent his juvenile body stumbling forwards, right into the glass face of the cabinet. Everything became airborne and fragmented, until it all went black.
The clock above the sofa curtly informed him it was already seven o’clock in the evening. Max yawned and rubbed his elderly eyes. Enough of this silliness. He needed to get his act together.
He gently stood up and headed up to the stairs to the bathroom to clean up. Vivid splashes of green and purple were beginning to appear along his knees, shins, ribs elbows and forearms. He was a pathetic case. In a haphazard fashion, he tended to the scrapes with an antibacterial wash before moving to his face. There the mud had mixed with his blood and formed stubborn scabs. After more than 15 straight minutes of wiping and scrubbing, a mound of washcloths was left to sulk in the bottom of the sink.
His reflection had become recognizable again, although certainly no prettier. Aside from the cruel manipulations of age- the wrinkles, sagging, spotting, and balding- the multiple scars on his cheeks, forehead and chin were starkly visible once more. His father had never really recovered from the guilt of that accident, even though he really had not been responsible. Max had been the one to trip and fall into the glass. And Max had gone into his father’s office and opened the hutch entirely without his father’s permission.
He had always wondered (but never dared to ask) about the whereabouts of the altered Sangamo. Since that evening he had returned home from the hospital, one case in the cabinet had remained empty. His father must have tried to dispose of the watch. But in the front yard? Had he buried it, or simply flung it out the door, overcome with rage? Of course he would never know. “One thing is for certain”, he whispered to the shadows as he buttoned up his flannel nightshirt. “I will try out the watch tomorrow”.
That night, he fell into a profound state of sleep, without so much as an inkling of a dream.
In the morning, his lively sense of purpose managed to override the physical agony he was experiencing. He forced himself to consume a piece of toast with a cup of tea before getting started. He allowed his dishes to loiter indefinitely on the table and walked out to his workshop in the garage.
Even though it had been a good fifteen years since he had sold his father’s locksmith business, he couldn’t part with the wealth of specialty tools that had been amassed at their home. At first, he had tinkered quite a bit with projects to grapple with the terrifying idleness of retirement. But it did not last. When he switched on the light and surveyed the walls and workbench, he noticed that everything had acquired a hearty coating of cobwebs. He pulled a rag from his pocket and dusted the surfaces, sneezing and wincing three times before placing the watch on the bench and lowering various tools from hooks on the pegboard above. He spent the most time wiping off the lenses of his binocular magnifiers, which he then worked to accommodate upon the bridge of his nose. He had always felt a bit ridiculous when wearing the clunky spectacles, all too aware that they gave him the appearance of a stunned lemur.
Before setting about the task of dismantling the watch, he began by examining the buttons at the upper right side on back of the case. Each measured about 5 millimeters in diameter, the size of a pencil eraser. Just as he had remembered, both were made of metallic materials. The copper one was easy to identify. The other, of a silver hue, he assumed must be made of zinc. Thus, they would serve perfectly as electrodes.
Now he took out his case knife, carefully matching the line of the blade with the seam, then pressing and lifting to remove the back of the case.
He followed the buttons to the interior. They had taken the place of the mainspring, the coil that was meant to store the energy generated by the winding mechanism. Two miniscule wires had been soldered onto this reverse side of the electrodes and extended to the balance wheel. He noticed other minute adjustments in the controller but otherwise the rest of the mechanism appeared untouched. He replaced the back of the case and turned it back over to set the minute and second hands.
It was time to test it out.
Rifling through his closet, he found two shirts with pockets in the correct position. He opted for the v-neck undershirt, with a coffee stain on its front, since his adjustments could very well ruin the garment anyway. He dropped the watch into the pocket, turned the shirt inside out, and with a pen traced a circle slightly smaller than the shadow of the watch on the other side. He cut out the circle, centered the watch within the cotton frame, and secured it in place with masking tape. Then he turned the shirt back around, thrust his arms inside and pulled his head through.
Max thought he felt a low buzz run through his body when the watch made contact with the skin on his chest, yet there was no way to prove it wasn’t something he simply imagined. The ensuing shudder that spread along his spine, however, was undeniable. So was the image of Lola that exploded into his thoughts.
It came from the day before she was left for college. She did not ask him to go with her, and he had not asked her to stay. In a final dramatic gesture, she had cut off her waist-length locks for a shag style. Now that multiple layers framed her entire face, the contrast between the two was heightened: her hair appeared even blacker, her eyes and skin much fainter, almost translucent. But it was her mouth, always her mouth that got to him. Full lips, imposing teeth, deep dimples punctuating both extremes- it was the most expressive and changeable feature he had ever encountered in a person. Oh, the time he had spent documenting and deciphering its many permutations. That day she had kept biting her upper lip; a glaring plea for action that he was too cowardly to heed. And then she was gone.
Max clutched his chest and felt an excruciatingly fierce ticking underneath. He blinked and suddenly found himself outside, on an unfamiliar doorstep. Fingers of warmth shone upon his back. Before he could knock, she answered.
Time had not changed her smile one bit.