The Clock Maker
Will’s hands, pale and patchy, don’t shake. They open the dial face of a seven-foot, two-inch Grandfather Clock and reach inside to find the key and wind the arbor until the spring for the clock is half tight. They do the same for the spring that strikes the chimes and then they put the key back in its place. Will’s hands close the dial face, push the eye loupe to the top of Will’s head, and then come to rest at Will’s side. The Grandfather looms over the room and tells time without hesitation or error. A dozen wall clocks and grandmothers on either side do the same. Cuckoo clocks and banjo clocks and mantel clocks fill out the rest of the wall and every wall in the small room. It’s dark and close in the little clock shop, in part because the windows were covered long ago to maximize wall space. The floor, too, is full of clocks and clock parts. There are faces and hands and screws and screwdrivers piled on the one counter, stacked on the register, and spilling from the four shelves behind the counter and onto the floor between. Each piece ticks and tocks and chimes and chirps with perfect punctuality.
Will moves to a chair in the middle of the room through its only open pathway. He takes a seat and a deep breath and closes his eyes. His hands maintain and always have but they will take this one moment. They hold one another and wait, watching the three hands of the Grandfather Clock on their course to unity. This is the best time. It is only once a day.
Noon. The room counts off cacophony. The Grandfather Clock leads the concert. Twelve strikes of innumerable bells iterate and reiterate at different paces from dozens of clocks, ramifying time through space. There are bells and chimes and fake bird song and real bird song. There are hammers and coils and gears turning. The sound fills the room and fills Will’s head, the sound of his clock shop running properly and to purpose. With open eyes he watches the doors of the more ornate clocks open into other worlds, welcoming trains and animals and fairies and trolls. He thinks of his stint in the army, many years ago. He thinks of the cars he used to work on even before that. He thinks of pictures he’s seen of drum circles in Africa. He knows they don’t sound like this.
Will listens to noon for an entire minute. As it passes by he stands up to clear a space and take his lunch. His hands don’t shake as he sets out the component pieces of his daily meal, the bread, the cold cuts, the can of soda, and he assembles a sandwich. As he eats, like always, he listens to the tick-tocking of his shop over the sounds of his chewing. Will is happy to be in step with his clocks and bear the weight of their temporality. It’s a good feeling to work hard and to be good at work.
And yet business is not good. Will knows it was better, a long time ago. For three generations, the men in his family have repaired pocket watches for church people, sold wall clocks to small-town lawyers, and refurbished cuckoos for local doctors. They were under contract with the municipal government to maintain the clock tower on the square. They made and repaired the time pieces that kept their little town on time and used to do enough business that they could support families and raise children. This is how it still was when Will took over decades ago. Like his dad and his grandfather before him, William Franklin III was dutiful and had a mind for machines. The same year his father died was the year Will married and had one son who later on went to the Gulf War and then didn’t come back. After that, Will’s wife retired early and they’d lived a quiet life, supported by the family clock shop.
Somewhere between then and now, however, things have become harder. Will can’t help but blame the times. Computers and phones have replaced clocks and made mechanical time obsolete. The well-to-do doctors and lawyers that used to visit the family shop regularly have let their clocks fall out of time. People that used to buy new clocks at the local shop now just shop online for computer watches with internet connections. Will’s hometown, apparently without much debate at all, voted to replace the clock inside the tower on the square with a computerized system that played pre-recorded chimes precisely every hour. After decades and decades together, they didn’t need the Franklins anymore.
Nowadays Will’s store is only patronized by old-timers that peruse and make small talk. They come in by the twos and threes, shuffling down the shop’s one path while their better halves play with smart phones in air conditioned pickup trucks outside. They shop and they talk to Will and they don’t buy anything. Will humors them because that’s how he was raised and because he can never really know that they aren’t relatives or old family friends or relatives of family friends.
In an attempt to reinvigorate the business, Will’s wife, Deja, is forever suggesting changes to the shop, changes Will can make to reinvigorate the flow of profit. Her ideas usually involve the sale of some gadget that Will doesn’t know anything about. In any case, he knows she only pushes these money making opportunities because she wants to retire again. But that’s not his concern: Will’s father taught him to live by the sweat of his own brow and to expect nothing otherwise and so she can do the same.
The truth is that Defja doesn’t appreciate these beautiful machines like he does. No one does. It’s terrible that so many nearby houses and small businesses and churches probably hold dysfunctional clocks, hanging silent and useless. Or worse. Ultimately, Will feels it’s a shame that he is the only one that cares like he does, cares about this, punctuality, that kind of thing. No one knows when they are anymore. They need their computers and phones and smart watches just to get through the day. But not Will. Will knows when he is.
He finishes his lunch and goes back to his clocks, the music of noon still filling his ears. He pulls his chair up to the first mantle clock directly to the right of the Grandfather Clock. He does the rounds like this, one clock at a time, every week, keeping everything in line, because that’s how he’s always done. It’s comforting to think that he is moving clockwise just like everything else in the shop. The clocks are his little choir and the Grandfather Clock is his assistant director. They all sing time together, with Will, in concert.
Years pass and months pass. The Franklin family business only slows and Will’s marriage only sours. His accountant calls one afternoon to tell Will he has maybe six months before bankruptcy is the only option. He is supposed to just do Will’s taxes but it’s so bad that he felt compelled to call and warn him. It’s a short conversation. Will thanks him and goes back to his tinkering rotation. He doesn’t tell Deja.
One afternoon, having completed another circle of the little clock shop, Will’s hands don’t shake as they open the dial face of the Grandfather Clock. He wants to check on the moon phase, a wide and thin single gear that rotates at the same pace the moon circles the earth. On the gear, someone many years ago painted the red-faced Man in the Moon. He smiles his own fullness and the stars behind him twinkle without threat. As the moon phase turns in place, the moon waxes and wanes and minute scenes follow the change from earth: there are sailboats tossed by huge wages, men on horseback going who knows where, and a knight pointing his sword to the top of a tall tower. Thinking about these medieval travelers gives Willan unnameable feeling, almost off putting.
Everytime Will really takes a look at a good moon phase, and the Grandfather’s is the best he’s ever scene, he wishes he could paint like the old masters. William Franklin I had been an incredible painter and the clocks he made showed off his mastery. Will learned many years ago how to mix and apply finish and he can do some basic restoration. But he has always known that anything decorative or artsy is beyond his imagination.
Having removed the faceplate, he can watch the gears inside turn the moon phase as he can watch all the scenes spinning simultaneously. He looks around at every other gear and cog as they healthily function by design. Will knows that his real expertise is functionality. Looking over the clock’s guts and understanding every bit of movement is comforting. Years ago, he used to watch the pistons in his Firebird hammer their power away. He hadn’t raced cars or even worked at a garage but had spent hours elbow deep into that vehicle. Working on clocks doesn’t feel so different.
Everything is operating as intended in the Grandfather Clock but it never hurts to check. Will’s hands don’t shake as they reach inside to stop the clock’s 39-inch pendulum and take it down. They proceed to take out every part, placing them all down in a straight and subsequential row wherever there’s space on the floor. Will’s hands hold each piece without shaking and look for any signs of undue wear. There are none. This process is not quick and they don’t hurry.
As he puts everything back in its proper place, Will feels some pride in how well he knows this Grandfather Clock and all the clocks in his shop. He thinks of his knowledge as almost congenital: the Franklins simply understand clocks. But really it’s more than that: Will has inherited an accumulated knowledge. The Grandfather Clock is full of what his father called witness marks, left by three generations of Franklins. They indicate repairs that have been made, maybe many times, in a code that operates like the Franklin’s outsourced familial memory. Between the family language and his years of experience, Will can imagine taking the entire Grandfather Clock apart piece by piece and putting it all back together without hesitation or error. He knows the name of every part and the purpose of every cog. Any information that doesn’t come immediately to his mind will be provided by his father and his grandfather in the witness marks they left behind. Anyone that could read the marks could hypothetically keep the clock in good working order. And yet Will doesn’t know that anyone could understand this work better than he does. He doesn’t know a living person that understands this work at all.
The bell over the entrance to the shop rings, announcing a customer, and Will jumps.
“It’s at it again!” says Bettie Odum without waiting for Will to greet her. She was William II’s customer before William III inherited the shop. Her mother had been William I’s customer many years ago.
“I simply cannot imagine what is going wrong this time!” She’s close enough to Will that he can smell her perm and she holds up a 32-day mantle clock that Will has seen many times. “I pray it’s not beyond repair! You have to do something!”
Will asks her about the clock because he feels it’s the right thing to do. Will appreciates her business as she is the only person that consistently has any for him. But she is wide-eyed and panicky in ways that are hard for him to understand. In any case, he knows there’s nothing wrong with Bettie’s clock. Her husband had maintained the clock with care and the occasional advice of Will or his father for many years, hardly ever needing it repaired. When Mr. Odum passed, he left his wife too nervous to wind it herself and too anxious to let it go silent. So she brings it to Will every thirty-two days, or whenever the clock once again needs rewinding.
Bettie always has her own rationale. “That girl from next door came over last week. You know she lives with some boy and I do not think they’re married. I didn’t want to speak with either one of them, of course, but I needed help getting the flag in front of my house untangled. Despite what you might expect from an adulterer, she was willing to help and then I didn’t have a choice but–”
“Ma’am, can you tell me what’s wrong with the clock?”
“I am!” She hardly takes the time to breathe. “The clock stopped ticking just a few days after she sat unabashed in my house, drinking tea out of one of my glasses! She pointed right to my dearly departed husband’s antique clock and had the nerve to say she liked it!”
“I’ll take a look, Mrs. Odum,” he said. Like he always does, he’ll keep the clock for a few days and then call her back in, winding it just before she arrives. Despite how grating this old woman is, Will doesn’t think it is his place to bring her to reason.
“Son, this might be beyond you. As you know, once Satan gets in a thing, only God can get the sin out.”
Bettie leaves Will alone in the shop. He waits for his ears to adjust from the sound of her screaming to the sound of time ticking.
Months pass and weeks pass. One morning, while Will is oiling the tiny movement of an antique banjo clock, he gets a rare phone call. Webb’s Funeral Home, just up the road, has a six-foot, five-inch Grandfather Clock that stopped telling time some years ago. Gerald Webb explains that he’s been meaning to call. Will knows what the problem is almost before Webb describes it. He remembers that this particular clock has a balance problem that could be easily remedied if the funeral home took the time to stand the clock properly. He explains to Webb how to balance the clock but he also offers to look at it himself.
“How much will that put me back?”
Will quotes his standard hourly rate, which has been the same for many years.
After a pause, Webb says, “You know, your dad and I used to go way back. We did his funeral, of course.”
“We used to joke that our lines of work weren’t all that different. He told me once that in the old times clock makers would also make coffins on the side. You think there’s any truth to that?”
Will has heard it before. Unsurprisingly, Webb doesn’t call again or bring Will the clock in question. Webb’s Funeral Home does not have the funds to pay for something so frivolous as Grandfather Clock repair and, regardless, Will knows that Webb only called for the small talk. Will doesn’t talk much to anyone, though. His accountant hasn’t called again. His wife avoids him and he avoids his wife. They both continue to work because that’s what they have to do.
Will’s social life is his choir, the clocks he knows so well. They sing together every day as he does his rounds. Will also communicates with his father and grandfather through the clocks. The witness marks inside each and every one of them tell little stories of the trials, failures, and successes of Will’s forebears. Some of the marks are just that: lines or dots that indicate the proper tightness of a screw or the best placement for the corner of a place, according to William I or II. However, the most interesting witness marks are elaborate symbols that refer to precise, dated notes left in dozens of books. They are the history of the Franklins’ hands inside clocks, repairing and restoring and experimenting. The notes describe failed improvisations or multifaceted productions or simple successes encountered in the family’s efforts to keep time. Will often spends hours studying these notebooks, though he’s never contributed a word. He doesn’t talk to anyone else, really, because he doesn’t feel like he needs anything else.
Bettie’s 32-day is the only exception in the shop. Willis the only Franklin that has left witness marks inside the small mantle piece and they are not helping him talk to the clock now. The clock has been with him more frequently in recent months. At first, Will wrote it off to Bettie’s loneliness and bad memory. But he can’t help but admit that the clock is in fact not holding time anymore and he doesn’t know why. Bettie has of course given him many explanations: she forgot to pray, he forgot to pray, the pastor forgot to pray, some cad said howdy to her at the grocery store. Will knows she’s insane but he also knows he can’t keep the clock working like he used to do.
He’s desperate enough one afternoon that he takes the whole thing apart and pieces it back together. As he does so, he cleans and polishes every single surface. He even puts a new coat of finish on the clock’s maple housing. He hasn’t been in this kind of situation since he first started working on clocks and his father had to teach him everything. Back then, he had enjoyed the superficial work of cleaning and polishing and painting because he could do it with confidence. He had wanted to learn to make clocks on his own and every stage and detail had been important to him.
Will smiles at this thought of his younger self as he applies finish to the top of the 32-day. He has always been a hard worker, if a little set in his ways. He does his job as well as anybody could. And yet he has never designed and built his own time piece. Not even one time. He calls himself a clockmaker only because that’s what the sign outside the shop has always said. Decades ago, William I started the business as an actual maker of clocks. He learned the trade as a kid from an immigrant that came to town and then needed an assistant. William I opened his own shop, had a son, and then taught him how to build and work the clocks. William II built much less often than his dad had, but he still could whenever a good opportunity arose. Since William III took over, however, it was all repair all the time. Everyone in the county already owned a clock or a watch, apparently, and only needed them fixed. Will had intended to leave the shop to his own son in due time but that dream was cut short.
So things had not proceeded exactly as planned. Will never had an opportunity to start from scratch so there is no clock making in his shop now. But he doesn’t think it matters, really. He is content with the knowledge that he could build a clock if he had to. Considering how well he knows clocks and repair, he’s sure he could put one together from the ground up. Of course he could.
Will jumps when the bell over the door rings. He turns to see a middle-aged woman wearing tiny round glasses and the chain to a pocket watch walk in.
“Anything I can do for you?”
“No, sir. I’m just looking.”
Will nods and goes behind the counter as there’s only enough space for one person on the floor of the shop at a time. He gives this woman her space because he knows it will only be a moment: he knows the time-wasting type. The stranger very likely grew bored of her phone in the parking lot while her husband was at the doctor and came over here to entertain herself.
From behind the counter, Will’s hands don’t shake as they go back to fiddling with Bettie’s 32-day. At this point, it runs for about twenty-four hours at a time before inexplicably dying. Will’s hands remove the faceplate like they now a dozen times this month to see if they can find anything new.
“Oh wow. This is something.” Will looks up to see that the stranger is standing at the Grandfather Clock.
“Yes ma’am, it’s a tall clock,” Will says.
“No, no. Mr. Franklin,” she starts to say something else but stops. “Are you Mr. Franklin? Is that your name?”
“Has been my whole life.”
“And you own this charming little shop?”
“Yes,” says Will, drawing out the word slowly. Something about this woman puts him on edge, though she doesn’t seem to share in Will’s discomfort. In fact, she is too busy examining the Grandfather Clock for Will to see her face. She opens the case and sticks her head fully inside, just as Will has done countless times. She takes deep breaths through her nose and Will recognizes that she is smelling the time inside, like he always does. He doesn’t usually let anyone touch his clocks, but this stranger seems so confident that he doesn’t even think to stop her.
She turns around then and looks at Will. “Mr. Franklin, do you know what this is?”
Will looks back at her and then at the face of the Grandfather Clock. For a moment, he considers telling this stranger the family legend that explains the presence of this clock in their shop. That William Franklin I opened his own clock repair shop in 1929. That he received the clock when it was brought in by some kind of local mobster who brought the clock to William I for repair. That the mobster then died before William I could return it. That no one had ever claimed it. That William I had gifted it to William II when the latter inherited the family shop. That William II gifted it to William III when the latter inherited the family shop. But Will knows that’s just a family legend. Nothing of the sort is recorded in the notes for the clock’s many witness marks and it lacks any kind of serial number that could be used to verify even the clock’s age.
“Who are you?” says Will.
“My name is Elizabeth Richmond,” she says and hands Will her card. She explains that she is a professional picker from Nashville, Tennessee. More precisely, she is an antique restorationist that “roams the countryside and the ma and pa shops therein.” She says he looked for “pieces of interest” but it was hard searching. She apparently has a doctorate in fin de siecle timepieces, but that doesn’t mean much to Will. All the same has a good hunch as to what she is getting at.
“It’s not for sale,” he says.
“All of which is to say, sir,” she says as she looks back at the clock, “that I have found something here very interesting, indeed. I believe this piece might date back to the nineteenth century. Considering its size and fortuitous housing here in your capable hands, I believe it might be worth a hefty sum.”
“I’m sorry but it’s not for sale,” says Will.
“Are you sure? Do you understand what you have here?”
“I do. But it’s not for sale.”
“That’s a shame, Mr. Franklin. In this condition, it could be worth a pretty penny.”
Will thanks Ms. Richmond for her interest, sees her out the door, and goes back to work.
Weeks pass and days pass. Bettie now calls every day to ask about her clock, which is still not completely right. Will finally has it telling time properly but the chimes will only keep up with the clock for a few hours or a day at the most. They are supposed to announce every hour for thirty two straight days. Everything inside the clock seems to be functioning but something is just wrong. This is the first time Will hasn’t been able to fix a clock in many decades and it has him losing sleep.
To make things worse, something is suddenly not right with the Grandfather Clock. It’s not easy to get the giant machine off track, especially with all the regular attention it gets, but its ticking has begun to sound sick to Will. He can hear it making a new kind of deadened sound, regardless of where he stands in his shop, and he doesn’t like it. After failing to find any kind of malfunction in the clock itself, he blames the picker. He’s decided to do like he did with Bettie’s clock and polish everything inside and out. He’ll then try to rebalance its weight in the hopes of getting it to sound like it used to. Bettie’s clock will have to wait.
One afternoon, Will decides to put a new coat of finish on the Grandfather Clock’s enclosure, from feet to planton. It’s an undertaking. The base and trunk sections are simple enough and don’t require much more attention than painting a wall would require. However, the Grandfather Clock’s hood, which holds the majority of its complication, including the face of the clock itself, is incredibly ornate. There are columns and fretwork and plinths and spandrels which all require special attention. The clock is topped at over seven feet with a finial that presents its own difficulties of precision. Will doesn’t love this aspect of his work but he simply doesn’t know what else to do.
The bell over the shop door rings when he’s about halfway up one of the quarter columns that support the clock’s waist and he almost knocks over the can of paint at his side. “Mrs. Odum, I said that I will call you when the clock is ready,” he yells without turning around. It’s about time she showed up again and it’s embarrassing that she caught him working on the Grandfather Clock even as he doesn’t have her 32-day clock finished.
But she doesn’t respond. “You know how much I charge,” he continues, wiping his hands and standing up to face her. “You shouldn’t need me to print you a …”
Not Bettie but four young people are standing abreast in the clock shop and staring at William Franklin III. It is the largest gathering of bodies in the shop in a long time, maybe ever. They are not looking at the clocks but at Will’s face.
“Can I help you boys?” They seem like males to Will but he can’t be sure. Then they begin to speak and Will stops trying to figure it out. The four deliver what seem like an unrehearsed speech. They take turns speaking, delivering one message out of four mouths. They talk in skips and fits. It is difficult for Will to follow.
They explain that they are something like Hail-Fellows-Well-Met, each with a certain expertise. They have built twelve machines of timeless complexity.
They tinker on their machines every Monday night into the early hours of every Tuesday morning. They would love nothing more than to tinker all the time, but they have day jobs and families. At this remark, they all laugh one time in unison.
They say the twelve machines are really twelve different experiments for reaching out into time. If the machines are not calibrated just so, they don’t go anywhere. When a machine does work, it is transported slightly into the future, taking with it anything that’s inside.
They say the machines never go to the past or to the present. They go to the future. To move slightly forward in time is the only outcome worth calling success. There are many things worth calling failure.
Will doesn’t know what to say so he doesn’t interrupt. There is a static feeling in his limbs and a ringing in his ears. The Hail-Fellows-Well-Met continue.
They say the machines are made from discarded trash. They couldn’t have afforded to do it any other way. They admit to stealing old guttering from construction sites and exhaust pipes from faraway dumps. They purchased flood lights at a second-hand store out by the lake. They are all outfitted with lights inside and out. All twelve sound generally alike. They emphasize the word generally.
But the machines vary in small ways. Some can be polluted. Some have many knobs and buttons and switches and beepers. One has nothing but a single lever. Three of them can fit one person at a time inside. Others fit two or three. Only one can fit all four of the Hail-Fellows-Well-Met at once.
Their families have grown increasingly impatient with the machines and the Monday-night ritual. But the hardest part has been just knowing when a machine is finished. They don’t want to stop tinkering. And yet they can get most of the twelve machines to run at least most of the time. They admit too that they’ve never tested the big one.
So they need to appease their families. They themselves have also been quickened with a sense of pride by a recent string of run-throughs without incident. As a result, they need to put on a demonstration so that everyone can see what they’ve done and what they’ve been able to make. And they need to test themselves.
As the Hail-Fellows-Well-Met finish this speech, they look at one another, satisfied. Will can only stare around the room. Before he can think about what he’s saying, he offers to host their demonstration in his shop in one week. The Hail-Fellows-Well-Met are honored to accept.
Days pass and hours pass. Will circles his clock shop, working them away and thinking about the Hail-Fellows-Well-Met. What does their name even mean? Who are they and why did they appear so suddenly and so strangely? Besides that random picker weeks ago, no one has walked into his shop like that in a long time.
Truth be told, the huge majority of Will’s work as he does his rounds week after week is superficial and repetitive. All the clocks in the shop are in nearly perfect working order, thanks in no small part to the constant attention they receive. Will hasn’t done a major restoration or repair since he can remember and that’s why he never contributes to his family’s witness mark notes. There’s a special closet for all of his heavy-duty tools but they go largely unused. Will knows that he doesn’t get new business of that or any kind in part because has never taken out an advertisement or made a business card. It’s not clear how the Hail-Fellows-Well-Met found him to begin with. Will’s choir sings, it’s true, but only to Will and always the same song.
Except that the Grandfather Clock is still out of tune. He finished the new coat for the enclosure and everything inside seems to be in working order – nothing’s broken or out of place or even dirty at this point – but it simply does not keep up. It’s seconds are too long and the clock is always behind. It fills Will with an unfamiliar anxiety. In a pendulum clock such as this, slow time keeping is usually a result of bad balance or a bad pendulum. This is exactly the advice he gave to Webb weeks ago. But fiddling with both has not helped the clock tell better time. To make matters worse, the clock’s chimes continue to ring with a sickly, overly deep tone that is confounding. Why would the sound of the chimes deaden like this or change at all? Will cannot figure it out. Meanwhile, Bettie Odum’s 32-day clock now won’t run at all and continues to take up space in his shop. He hasn’t yet committed the time the smaller clock needs and so he still doesn’t know what’s wrong with it, either. But it will have to wait.
One morning, in a minor fit, Will decides to once again take everything inside the Grandfather Clock out so that he can put it all together again and then hopefully cure it of whatever ailment it has. The clock has what fancier horologists call Grand Complications: in addition to the mechaniations of time keeping at work between its plates, there are many other moving parts that don’t tell time but rather operate in tandem to time. Among many other things, the Grandfather Clock includes its moon phase, hemispheres, chimes, a calendar, and a single door that opens on the first day of the month to reveal that the Man in the Moon has transformed into some kind of princely gentleman.
Will takes every piece out and lays it all on the floor like a perfect schematic. It goes well until he gets to the pendulum, which is over three feet long. There simply isn’t room for it on the floor of the shop, which is now littered with gears and plates and unmoving hands.
He suddenly remembers: the Hail-Fellows-Well-Met! If there isn’t room for three feet of pendulum, there certainly is not room for the four weirdos, their twelve machines, and however many strangers they bring into Will’s shop for their demonstration. In a panic, Will’s hands begin to shake as they put the Grandfather Clock back together without fixing or learning a thing. They shake as they take spare parts, watches, and the smallest clocks and pile them in the closet and they shake more as they lift the bigger clocks and the one chair, shifting things around and kicking up clouds of dust.
As he does his best to clean and reorganize dozens of clocks and parts and tools, Will runs into non-clock items stashed around the shop. He immediately remembers trying to hide each thing over the years: a display case for jewelry that’s never been used, a catalogue of exercise equipment with the fitness watches flagged, an expensive machine for polishing gold and silver still in the box. These were Deja’s attempts at expanding the family business. He couldn’t bring himself to throw them away and he’s not sure what to do with them now, besides throw them into a closet.
Will also finds the picker’s business card on the counter under a pile of different sized screwdrivers. He never mentioned that encounter to Deja and he didn’t mention the Hail-Fellows-Well-Met or their demonstration, either. Will has never been unfaithful and has hardly ever even had anything to lie about in their many years together. But this is different. He doesn’t know what he would tell her about these strange people barging into his shop. More than that, Will does not want Deja around when this demonstration takes place. He does not want her to ruin it with talk of money making opportunities or retirement or change.
He throws the business card, shoves more junk into the closet, and manages to close the door. That leaves only Bettie’s clock, which still does not work. Will has never had this much trouble with a single clock. He’s especially dumbfounded because he knows the clock so well. His hands are the only hands that have worked on this machine for many years. He knows it in all its details. It’s enough to make him wonder if he is the problem, the cause of the malfunction. But he can’t pinpoint it and there’s no time to worry about it now. He puts it on the shelf behind the counter.
Hours pass and minutes pass. The Hail-Fellows-Well-Met show up at Will’s store precisely two hours before starting time. They load their machines into the shop and set up in a buzz, speaking in starts and fits.
“Striated and … not striated.”
“But self-sameness, right?”
“You remember what they said about repetition.”
“Like … this.”
They go on but Will doesn’t care to listen much. It’s too strange that anyone else is in this old shop with him at all. It’s also strange how much the shop has changed in the last few days. The floors are bare of clocks, though their shapes in the carpet and the dust remain. Will has spent so much of his life completely alone in this cramped room. Now, without really understanding why, everything feels very different. He pretends to occupy himself but mostly ends up pacing and trying not to listen as the Hail-Fellows-Well-Met continue their weird movements.
About an hour before the demonstration is set to begin, then, other people start showing up. They are all strangers to Will, who can’t find a pattern among their weird hats, jackets, and jewelry. He hadn’t actually expected an audience, so he stands behind his counter, overwhelmed and smiling awkwardly.
He watches as many of these young people make no effort to hide how amazed they are by Will’s shop. They tour Will’s collection as if they were at a museum, silent and contemplative. Each one of them checks the time incessantly by watch or clock or phone and they are constantly showing the results to each other excitedly. Will spies some punk with tattoos and watches on both of his wrists compare their faces to the Grandfather Clock and even touch its inlay with his strange hands. It doesn’t seem to both him that the huge clock is so far behind.
Everyone here seems so young and they are all reaching out for so many things and kicking up so much dust that there is an actual haze around Will. His hands shake as he waits.
Minutes pass and seconds pass. The Hail-Fellows-Well-Met finish setting up and then grow quicker in their fidgeting. The room vibrates in a way that reminds Will of the feeling just before noon strikes at the shop. The shop is noisey and cramped with people and hardly recognizable.
The agreed upon time for the demonstration comes and goes. The Hail-Fellows-Well-Met do not start. Will’s hands shake with nothing to do.
Suddenly the Hail-Fellows-Well-Met stand in a line between their audience and their machines. Will tries to help by turning off half the shop’s lights, which makes the room too dark. He quickly turns them all back on.
The Hail-Fellows-Well-Met give a short speech about what they’ve done and it’s not so different from the speech Will has already heard. They give the impression of having rehearsed what they wanted to say but in a different way, as if they decided at the last minute to trade lines or rearrange their order. They stumble over their words and talk on top of one another. Not one of them seems to be in charge. There’s also a good amount of giggling, some of which comes from the audience. Then the Hail-Fellows-Well-Met say, “Thank you” in unison. They walk to the machine farthest to stage left.
The first machine starts and it creates quite a bit of smoke. It skitters and vibrates in place. The room fills with the kind of sound that reminds Will of gears turning. But there’s also interference. It sounds strange to Will, though not unpleasant. It’s at least not as sick sounding as the Grandfather Clock currently is. Then the machine just stops and the room is silent but for the sounds of people breathing and clocks ticking.
The audience applauds and the Hail-Fellows-Well-Met laugh. Everyone is happy with whatever just happened. Will does not know what to do with his hands. The Hail-Fellows-Well-Met move on to the second machine at stage right. This one has a slightly different quality when started and seems to blink in and out of the room. It sputters out and lies still, just like the first machine. There’s more applause and the demonstration goes on, the Hail-Fellows-Well-Met undeterred.
They demonstrate their third and fourth machines. A rhythm develops enough that Will loses track of time. Proceedings occasionally jump like a clock with tripped gears. Will wonders if he’s having some kind of stroke. Whole moments are skipped and no one looks back. He blinks and things shift again. But maybe it was more than a blink. He can’t remember as the moments march by. The audience members occasionally grin at each other and show each other the time on their watches.
Will enjoys something about this, something about the Hail-Fellows-Well-Met. Their work is fascinating to him, though he doesn’t understand it. But it is also making him sick. Whatever the Hail-Fellows-Well-Met are doing in his shop, it does not look to him like it has anything to do with time or clocks. Not the way he knows them, anyway. Again he wonders why these kids are here and how they found him. He does not feel well.
He tells himself that he agreed to host this demonstration because he thought it would be good for the health of his repair shop. His wife would like that he was trying something different, if he had told her about it. But, actually, he can’t remember why this seemed like a good idea at all. He can’t help but think it’s only going to result in fire damage and lawsuits. He looks at Bettie’s clock, which sits inert behind the counter. The thought of that old woman walking into this room full of smoke and strangers mortifies him. He closes his eyes and holds his hands to keep them from shaking.
There are some misfires and scares as the Hail-Fellows-Well-Met move left to right. Not every machine seems to work like it should and some take much longer than others to demonstrate. It’s exhausting for Will, who has not moved from the back of the room since the demonstration’s start. But then they finish with their eleventh machine. It smokes and shudders and then stops altogether. The Hail-Fellows-Well-Met shrug and move on to rapturous applause.
The twelfth machine, the final demonstration piece, is the largest. Will is relived that this insanity is nearly over but he also remembers that this machine is the only one the Hail-Fellows-Well-Met said they could all fit into at once, whatever that means. He watches them turn their backs on the smoke and debris of the first eleven machines and line up before this last piece. The interior lights show that it’s been furnished with two rows of seats apparently taken from minivans of two different decades.
The Hail-Fellows-Well-Met circle around the giant machine and look at each other. They take three breaths in unison.
They close their eyes at once and hum a low note.
Seconds pass and seconds pass.
Will can barely hear the humming and it’s enough to finish off his patience. If he and the store survive this evening, the clean up after all these kids get out of here is going to be miserable. His hands have been shaking for what feels like days. He can hear his Grandfather Clock sounding more and more dead and he wants to be alone with his choir.
Then the Hail-Fellows-Well-Met climb into their last machine. They close the doors behind them. The audience can see the four of them the way a driver can see inside a car that idles at the other side of an intersection. The Hail-Fellows-Well-Met each face forward but keep their eyes closed. They take deep breaths through their noses.
No one talks. No one moves. The moment stands still.
“Ok, ok, ok,” yells Will, stepping in front of the machine and facing the audience, not realizing what he’s doing. “Looks like we have another dud! That’s that! Thank you all for coming!”
The audience looks at Will and then looks back at the Hail-Fellows-Well-Met, who haven’t opened their eyes or moved at all.
“I’m not sure,” somebody says.
“Yes, that’s it everybody, thanks for participating,” he says, waving his hands in the air.
Light then fills the room and everyone blinks against it. The Hail-Fellows-Well-Met’s machines have made more of a mess than Will had realized. He feels tired as he looks out over the audience and sees that no one is moving. He is still waving his hands but no one is looking at him. They only stare at the Hail-Fellows-Well-Met behind him in the twelfth machine.
Will turns around to look where they are looking. The machine is like a homemade submarine out of water or a bomb shelter undug. Huge lights flood the room. Behind the Hail-Fellows-Well-Met hang dozens of Will’s clocks, all ticking away in concert.
Will’s eyes move to the four people sitting in the machine. They are smiling. Nothing is happening.
Then the sound of a gun firing. Light goes dark. Night falls.
When the lights come back on, the Hail-Fellows-Well-Met and their twelfth machine are gone. The impression of the machine remains in the carpet. No one else has moved.
William Franklin’s Grandfather Clock is all over the floor. Its casing is shattered and its chimes are scattered. The Man in the Moon looks up at Will, cherubic and broken.
William Franklin stepped back from his work. He was done.
It had taken him many years. He’d done his time. There had been so many failures. Money and wood and steel and time all ruined and irretrievable. His back ached and his hands were already like claws.
But he finished it. Not only did it tell perfect time, but it was also beautiful. He knew he would never sell it. His whole body shook with joy and pride. His eyes filled with tears as he stared at his Grandfather Clock.
Will’s hands, pale and patchy, shake as they put brush to canvas. He’s painted a moon that looks more like a dinner plate and he’s painted stars that don’t twinkle at all. The classroom he’s in is way too bright there’s nothing on the walls. He is by far the oldest person taking this course and he’s been the only one with questions, his hands shaking to ask. But he needs to know how to get this prince to look right.
Maximilian Martini is a writer and musician currently living in Chattanooga, TN. He’s also lived in New Jersey, Southern Illinois, Chicago, and Kyrgyzstan. This is his first published piece. His work is forthcoming in Zinebrier.