I’ll run a marathon, or I’ll write a screenplay, or I’ll get serious about my cooking: things people say and never do before they die. In my own small way I know how the professional chef feels, the film writer, the marathoner. Their realms, like mine, belong to the public. Compared to particle physics or sculpting in marble these jobs should not be difficult, or so say the masses. My father felt the same about my occupation.
I am a facer of clocks, and a traditionalist in my line of work. The best times are the classics: “12:00,” “2:15,” and “7:00.” Usually when I begin to figure which time a particular clock should bear while it awaits a home, I have one of those old bones in mind. You think these times are tired or overused, because you’ve seen them on fresh, yet-to-be-used clockfaces since you were a child. But they’re like Shakespearean similes and metaphors, so brilliant as to have lasted through the ages. They weren’t clichés when first written down. Are you tired of roses representing love? Or of winter being old age? Say so, and you lay naked your self-importance.
I stay busy in contracts with three companies: RCA, Timex, and Mr. Coffee; soon enough, Rolex. In an average week 2.5 of my clocks hit shelves. A clock can change a lot between its prototype phase—the first time I see it—and the day it enters stores. Every change in its specs necessitates a corresponding adjustment to the model string of digits that is my charge. Sometimes I have as little as a week to decide which time the packaging should display. Constantly until then I’m even responsible for producing photo-faces for the clock. I don’t even get specs for the cellophane encasement, my canvas, until hours before a given clock goes up for sale. For dealing coolly with such problems I’ve risen in my profession. The market rewards me properly.
I’ve come a long way since my first job after college, during which I of course faced my first timepiece—a calculator watch I visaged “12:01.” On the Saturday when it finally shipped to stores I woke up early to buy a unit for my pops. When I got back home Dad was already awake and pounding away in the garage. Hammerfalls—his own brand of tic-tock—issued through that thin foldable door. He’s swung a hammer his whole life. Built houses. His side work that morning gave me pause.
They say that he and I look alike. We both have a curly bush of black hair. People pretend not to see beyond this feature to our height, apparently, for I’m shorter by six inches. His locks jostle mightily when he works, and I could see them intensely jouncing as I stood outside. In my palm, away from the pomp and fluorescent signage of Wal-Mart, this watch was more clearly a gimmick. The cheap band was awled in foreign lands for a few pennies. The cut-rate processor came from a batch of leftovers found in the back room of some Jersey factory. Even the paltry packaging outsized the clock within. The formica bed was regally curved even if the velvet that covered it was cheap. My cellophane sticker was the best thing about the entire encasement; I had chosen a minute after midnight quite well. By staying so near to that ultimate hour, that traditional, graceful series of symbols, I matched the attitude of this little harlot. She desperately needed a home on someone’s wrist but was hardly willing to admit her lack of originality. Bang, bang, went the hammer.
Air bubbles interceded between the imitation quartz faceplate and my publication. Bang, bang. My father and I had spoken less ever since I’d announced my change of major from Mechanical Engineering to Chronologic Templating. I would wait until I’d done worthier work.
A year or so later, out on my own and living rather well, I brought home to Dad a minor masterwork, my physiognomy for the Timex T47BC clock radio. He regarded it for long moments. The numerals, my colleagues had said, were “perfectly synchronous” with the sleek cutting lines of that sleek ticker. The fellows downtown had praised “9:12” as the perfect number for this virgin façade, saying that I must have bribed the design team to start with those numbers and work around them.
“That helps it sell?” my father asked at last.
“Of course it does. It isn’t about money though. Executives frown on associating numericology with real-world data,” I said.
“The branch of geometry concerned with how numbers affect an empty state of mind,” I said. But what used did my dad have for such terminology?
“Did you ever think of designing something larger?” he said.
“Four digits works. Two for hours, two for minutes. More would confuse people, don’t you think?”
“If you say so,” he said.
“Once I did an extra two for milliseconds because Seiko hired me for a stopwatch job. Even that felt a little mercenary. Next they’ll want microseconds. Then what? Pico? And I might ask you to build a four-story house.”
To placate me, or because he was hungry, he smiled, wagged his curls. “I get it now. Nobody would by a fourth story. Forgive me,” he said.
“No one wants to imagine climbing all those stairs every day.” “And who can fathom microseconds? This is just great, kiddo.” He peeled off the clinging face, stood at attention with me, and held it out for us to admire. “It makes you happy. That’s all that matters.”
I had failed to consider that my field was still relatively new to a man of years so wintry—or at least so autumnal. Mom was through with dinner. He placed my face on the refrigerator and we ate.
“Thank you,” he said.
He was admirably patient on his birthday as he rode with me to a locale I would not disclose. Perhaps he sensed what I sensed: that some childish phase of our relationship was about to tick its last. Whatever made me need his approval had grown weak in my new aspect of adulthood. Yet somehow a mutual excitement about the ageless virtue of labor was thickening between us in the air of my Mazda Protege.
“I know this neighborhood,” he said. “I worked a site out this way. It was six or seven months ago I think.”
More like a year it had been, since he and his crew had completed the Sun Beach retirement community. I had begun planning this gift just after unveiling the Timex to him. How was it that I knew the span better than he? Perhaps time moves toward stasis as one grows older . . . yet before any soul’s beginning, does it not seem to that man as though time were frozen fast?
“What are you giving me? Couldn’t be a house. You don’t make that much money.”
“You and Ma are too happy on Bradford Street,” I said.
“I won’t say anything else till you show me what this is all about.”
“You keep driving kiddo.”
I parked on the far reaches of the community to prolong the walk and the suspense. Our footsteps resounded not at all, though the neighborhood was still largely unpopulated and perfectly silent. The lively limestone surfaces of the houses, the plushness of the automatically-watered lawns, damped down the slaps of our shoes.The developers were asking too much for these homes; I knew because my mother regularly passed along quotes about Dad’s work during idle lunch phone conversations with me.
We finally reached the community center with its stone clock tower. Before facing it, I had made long study of its material, its architecture, and its geographical situation between the arthritis pool and the golf cart garage.
I waited for Dad to realize the secret of our final destination. His eyes surveyed my face, then the grounds around us. Finally his gaze made its way up the tower.
The arms were just long enough to kiss the serifs of the roman numerals. The tip of the minute hand just clipped the base of the glyphs to which it pointed, as if to represent the lightness of a blown kiss. The arm sent its love to those who waited for time to begin in a new place. The other pointer arrogantly cut the wing of that bottom “V” to align itself with the long thin stalk of the adjacent “I.” This touch of naughty attitude, I dared to hope, harmonized with the superior mood of this well furnished place. Most of all what had made me choose half past three, was the daring perpendicularity of the arms thus countenanced. In what other figure could intersection and opposition combine so seamlessly, and finally send an expression heavenward?
We didn’t hug. Did not say a word in fact. I followed his lead in extending our walk. Now he prolonged the suspense. The merest consternation refused to enlighten his features.
Returning to my car, we made our way again by the community center and its towering clock. He said, “That face just makes me want to get things going.” He had never called one of my facings by its industry name.
“It’s just for you. No one else.”
“There ’s no putting that one on the refrigerator.”
After a few minutes he got the lock combination right and entered the center. I waited in the lobby and heard footsteps on stairs. When those dissipated completely I ran outside. Dad opened the clock outward and all I could make out was his roundure of hair, a little tamped-down these days with gray but still distinctly ours. The silhouette of his hand waved and he drew shut the clock with a penetrating clack. There followed a grinding-to-life like that of some great cyborg. A machine halfanimal growled with a vaguely organic tumbling. The sound of existence itself.
On the way home we discussed football, politics, and my future with Rolex, who had given me a year-long contract. A well-enumerated stasis had given way to motion.