by J.D. Tuccille
Even in these sad, conformist times, when most people would gladly sell their souls for a fresh episode of Melrose Place, there are still few hold-outs living lives of their own design.
He was known for his clocks. Each was different, and beautiful. Working slowly, with the skills he'd patched together here and there over many years, he carefully sawed, planed, and shaped the expensive wood. Gear by gear, he created the workings, then disassembled, filed, and assembled them over and over again until the teeth meshed just right, and the finished mechanisms kept perfect time.
His sight was no longer what it had been, and his steps had grown slow and labored with the deterioration of age, so he wasn't entirely surprised by the wave of pain that struck him one day as he began shaping the casing of his latest and most ambitious clock. The pain crept up from his abdomen, constricting his stomach muscles into heavy knots, fastening suffocating bands of iron around his chest, then, thankfully, granting a blessed explosion of unconsciousness when it bored through his neck to his head.
When he came to, he found himself lying flat on his back on the cold concrete floor of the garage that he'd converted to a workshop long ago.
"Damn, that was something."
Carefully, he rose to a sitting position, then staggered to his feet. The pain was gone, but had left dizziness in its wake, and he lurched from side to side on his way to the wall-mounted telephone. Reaching for the receiver, he noticed the time on his wristwatch -- the minute hand stood at near-attention just a tick before the hour. With effort, he turned to confirm the time with the rows of clocks that lined three levels of shelves along the wall. Then he sat in the discarded kitchen chair by the phone, and waited.
In unison, the ranks of minute hands struck the hour, and the workshop filled with tweets, chimes, cuckoos, and delicately plinked little tunes. Almost as a chorus, the medley of sounds blended instead of clashing in competition.
When the last echo had faded away, the old man raised his arm and lifted the telephone receiver from the hook.
Looking at her father in the harsh light of the doctor's reception area, she wondered again how he'd gotten so damn old. The long years of his life showed in the slump of his shoulders, his thin, white hair, and the lines and coarse texture of his skin. There were years on display that she didn't remember, that must have slipped by while they'd been occupied with their separate lives. She was a little surprised that he'd called her when he collapsed. Even with his few cronies, the old man was stubbornly independent, and she'd never been very close with him.
The old man rose with a wince when his name was called, but batted her hands away when she tried to help.
"I'm not a cripple yet," he growled. Despite herself, she winced in response. Though she was a grown woman, the squint he gave her brought back memories of scoldings for long-forgotten childhood mischief. She watched as her father tottered on his cane across the nearly-empty room, then disappeared into the doctor's examination room beyond.
Left by herself, the woman snatched a news magazine from the rack, then tossed it down when she found herself reading about a civil war in a country that had erased itself from the map over a year before. She tried another magazine, but didn't have the will to focus on any story for more than a paragraph or two. Finally, she was reduced to tearing a tissue into smaller and smaller pieces as she waited.
When her father reappeared, he had his arm around the doctor, who was of roughly the same age. As they puffed and paused in their progress across the room, it was impossible to tell which was helping the other. Just as her father had been one of the doctor's first patients, so now he was one of the last, and the two of them chatted and chuckled in between labored breaths.
The old man was quiet on the way out to the car, and for the first few minutes of the trip. He kept his eyes focused on the passing scenery alongside the road. Finally, the woman couldn't help herself.
"What did he say, Dad?"
There was no answer for a long moment, then the old man growled back. "Cancer, most likely. He wanted to send me to the hospital for some tests, but I told him not to waste my time."
"Then why'd he say cancer? I thought they weren't supposed to say until they knew for sure."
The old man turned to face her, and gave her the familiar squint. "What'm I gonna do? Sue him if I drop dead of a heart attack instead of cancer? I'm old, and there's no cure for that."
The car was silent for a time before the old man spoke again.
"Take that right up ahead. I want to look at the old shop."
The daughter took the specified turn, then brought the car to a stop in front of a familiar facade about half way down the block.
The old man put his head through the open window and peered out. "Huh. Look at that. They're selling the same old junk I sold when I owned the place, except now they call it 'antiques'." He shook his head.
"Well, it looks like they're taking pretty good care of the shop . . ."
"Uh huh. Jesus Christ! Do you see how much they're charging for that dresser?"
"Now, Dad, you can't blame them for charging whatever they can get . . ."
Her father looked back over his shoulder, his face once again the face that had grounded her for sassing her mother when she was nine. "I didn't say there was anything wrong with it. I just can't believe how much they're asking for that dresser."
Unsure how to respond, the woman kept quiet as she put the car back into gear and pulled away. Several minutes of silence brought them to a neighborhood of one-time summer cottages that had been expanded into year-round homes. Her father still lived here, in the house where she had been raised.
"That's where I learned how to make the clocks, you know," her father said.
"What?" the woman asked, before realizing that her father was still thinking about the shop.
"People would bring in beautiful old clocks that didn't work anymore. I'd open 'em up and clean 'em -- sometimes that's all they needed. Some of them were missing a part or two, so I taught myself to make replacements -- I knew what was missing because I'd opened up so many of 'em."
The woman took her eyes off the road for long enough to look at her father. "I never knew that."
"How'd you think I learned to make the clocks?"
The woman shrugged. "I don't know." She laughed. "Time-Life books, maybe."
The old man laughed.
At the house, the old man opened the passenger's door, and eased himself out without saying a word. Then he stopped and turned. "Thanks for taking me to the doctor. I'm not much of a driver anymore." His words came out stilted, as if by a force of will. "And while I'm sorry about your marriage goin' sour, I'm glad you're back in town."
Then, after pivoting slowly on the cane, he walked off towards the side of the house and the path that led to his workshop.
She didn't hear from the old man for several days. Knowing his temper and his independence, she was afraid to call, then, when enough time had passed, she was afraid not to.
Finally, she simply drove over.
She knocked at the door of the old garage.
The door eased open to reveal the cluttered, dimly-lit interior.
"Hey, kid. You come over to say hello before I kick off?"
"Be nice, Dad."
The old man grabbed his cane and hobbled over.
"How're the kids?" he asked.
"Fine. They're with their father this weekend."
"That jerk. And the job?"
"It pays the bills."
He nodded. "That's what it's supposed to do."
She looked around the crowded space at the tools, planks, and discarded scraps, then up at the shelves that were much fuller than she remembered.
"I haven't been in here in years," she said. "Almost never even when I was a kid."
The old man shrugged. "This was always my domain. The house was your mother's. Even the shop, since she handled the books."
"Are all the clocks here?"
"Every single one." he pointed. "The earliest ones are up there to the left, then you follow 'em across and down, and you can see where I got better at my craft. The newer ones are more finely made, but I love 'em all."
The woman took another look around, then shuffled her feet a bit. "Hey, Dad. How about joining me for dinner? Maybe we can go to that old diner you like?"
The old man looked at her, then at the partially-constructed shell on the work bench. "Naah, but thanks. I have a lot of work to do . . ." his voice trailed off as he turned away " . . . and not a lot of time."
In the weeks that followed, the old man refused to leave the workshop except to eat and sleep. He labored all day, placing orders by phone for the materials he needed to finish the clock. The woman visited her father every few days to check on his health. Each time, the old man was visibly weaker, while the clock took finished form under his hands.
"Dad, maybe we should take you back to the doctor. Maybe there's something they can do."
The old man looked up from the clock and shook his head. He held out a hand that looked like parchment stretched over a wire frame. "I doubt it. If it's not cancer, it's one hellacious tape worm. Besides, I don't have the time to be poked and prodded."
With passing time, she came to dread the progress on the clock, as if her father were feeding it the dregs of his own energy.
The day finally came when the clock was finished. She found out almost by accident when she stopped by and saw her father resting in his chair in the workshop. The tools had been cleared away, and a hooded lamp shone down on the finished piece.
"It's beautiful," she said.
"It needs to be wound, but it's done."
She walked around the finished piece, examining it from all sides. She traced the inlaid wood with her eye, and admired the even sheen of the wood. "It's the most beautiful of the lot."
The old man sat in place, nodding either in agreement or exhaustion. His eyes finally opened, and he blinked behind the glasses.
"Is that offer of dinner still open?" he asked.
The night after the clock's completion, the woman lay awake, remembering the sight of the finished piece under the light, and the sick old man in his chair. She sleepwalked through work the next day, until finally she reached for the telephone.
As the phone rang without answer, the woman grew nervous. She knew there was no real reason to worry -- her father could be in the yard, or taking a well-deserved rest, or maybe one of his cronies had dragged him out for a drink to celebrate the finished clock. But the more she tried to calm herself, the more worried she became, until she finally asked for the rest of the day off.
Driving to her father's house, she felt foolish. She anticipated the sharp look the old man would give her and the comments he'd shoot her way, and almost turned the car around to head back to the office.
The comforting smell of wood smoke drifted through the autumn air, and she breathed it in deeply. Then, the smell grew stronger, and more acrid, and a jolt of adrenaline shot through her body. She brought the car to a shrieking halt in her father's driveway and left the driver's side door open behind her as she bolted across the asphalt, down the grassy strip between the house and the high picket fence, and into the wide yard where she had played as a child.
Like the ruins of an ancient pyramid, the clocks towered high, stacked one upon the other. Through the flames licking at their lacquered finishes and inlaid designs, the hands still moved in synchronized lockstep, counting down their final moments.
And at the very top, the most magnificent of all and still untouched by the flames, was the final clock.
Her eyes locked on the pyre, it took several moments to notice the figure slumped in the lawn chair at a safe distance from the flames. Forcing her feet forward, she moved to stand beside her father.
"Took me all morning," the old man muttered in a barely audible voice. He seemed shrunken in his clothes, as if he'd huddled in the chair, then been doused with a basket of laundry. "I can't believe how weak I am."
The woman put her hand on his shoulder.
"But I got them all out," he said.
"What the hell are you doing?" she asked. "They were beautiful. I wanted them to . . . to remember you. I wanted your grandchildren to have the clocks -- for people to see them."
The old man looked up at her, gritting his teeth and stretching facial muscles and tendons taught with the effort. He pushed himself half way out of the chair and narrowed his eyes, and in his face she saw a flicker of his former energy.
"To hell with other people. I made those clocks for me."
Then he dropped back in his chair.
The fire had now caught up with the newest of the clocks, and the flames lept up higher and higher, consuming the old man's work.
Ah yes, there may be a fine end in store for me yet.