The Clock-Winder of Glanz

THE CLOCK-WINDER OF GLANZ 

Patrick Keppel

I

Waking, we know all too well, the purposeful journey from Point A to Point B, the invariable line segment that takes us to the hardware store before it closes.  Make no mistake, this is a most useful trip, we couldn’t have built anything without it–for instance, these letters that queue up so neatly.  But as all things tend as well toward the time and space of dreams, yearn for it, occasionally along the way we happen to notice, if we are not blind, that the moon is risen, and suddenly stop our forward progress and stare up at the thing and see that it’s the pupil of the universe, an insomniac’s eye bloodshot with constellations, or we simply notice it, what a remarkable moon tonight, I don’t care, and remember just then something that happened long ago, perhaps before we were born.  But then all at once an alarm goes off, a hammerringing bell, a quartz chirping, an air raid blast–yes, the store is closing, keep moving!–and so we turn away from the vision, quickening our pace to make up for lost time, or else to hide our fear.  For as easily as we choose to forget our morning dreams, we forget that in that moment we knew we might never return to that straight, familiar path.  And I choose to believe, because at the moment I happen to be living proof of the fact, that perhaps one person in a million actually doesn’t come back, and that one of these is a distant relative of mine, hidden for all these years in the story into which he dissolved and out of which he is even now being conjured, the Clock-Winder of Glanz.

But first, my clock history, because our relationship is such now that you will not be able to see him unless I step into the light.  I woke for the first time to forgetfulness when I was no more than two.  It was a hot lighttime, and I was lying in my bed in the soupy grey fog of late infancy, pillow and brain as one, when all at once as though from far away I heard someone calling my name, or else giving me my name only then.  I sat up and looked out the window and through a pale haze that was either the air outside or the cloud in my head saw a man with dark glasses or hollowed out sockets, our neighbor John Sands or maybe the Sandman, coming to greet me or saying farewell.  Then he said my name again, or merely thought it, and I remember thinking back some paperchain of new words like, “How me inside see?” Suddenly I became frightened or simply confused and fell back in my bed, curled up in a heavy sleep.

When I woke for good later that night or early the next morning, the man was gone; perhaps I’d only dreamt him, but at the time the distinction still seemed irrelevant, if not impossible. So I scanned the windows and then all around the room for that eyeless face, and it was then that I noticed my first clock hovering over me on the wall like a midwife or a guardian spirit, ambiguous as they always are, protecting me from some unspeakable harm with the slow, eternal sweep of its nearly invisible second hand, but in the same way blatantly revealing life as a rapid spinning away–thirty seconds gone, and then fifty, and all the while those minute and hour hands creeping imperceptibly beneath, like a deft magician’s. Like many clocks, its shape suggested the sun’s power easily tamed and yoked. Its bright white face was shielded by a clear glass mask and framed by the dull points of an octagonal wooden aureole. From its stumpy neck a twisted spinal cord drooped down the wall on a wide arc like the tail of a kite, tethered permanently to a socket hidden behind my bed.

Actually it was not only my clock but my older brother’s as well, but as we were rivals for the right to supplant our father in our mother’s bed (if that makes it any easier), we fought constantly and had to be separated. The last time we came to blows I nearly blinded him at breakfast with a milk bottle, oddly enough for no good reason and in full view of our parents. The next thing I knew I was being carried upstairs to exile in my room, a punishment I never understood, since my room seemed boundless to me; I was never more instantly at peace than I was there. This time, however, my crime had been so blatant that the door was slammed behind me, sucking a huge gust of air out of the room. The clock lifted off its hook like a desperate fish and came crashing down to the floor. I crept to where it lay and stood over it in awe. It was still alive, but its mask had cracked and come off its face, and it was humming loudly. At last I dared to pick it up. A tiny piece of something inside tumbled into its gullet; the clock fell silent, stopped moving. In desperation I shook it once, and to my surprise it started up again, apparently as smoothly as before, though I could see that its fragile second hand was bent and so brushed gently against the clock’s face, which, I was disappointed to discover, was only a flimsy piece of cardboard. I tried to re-attach its mask, but it was no use, its hinges had snapped. Then I realized I didn’t like holding the thing in my hands, it was so like a wounded animal, so I quickly climbed up on my bed and returned it to its place on the wall, as though nothing had happened.

But of course something had happened. My brother and I were separated; perhaps this was after all the whole point of my outburst. I now took full possession of the clock, as well as full responsibility for it, since it now required constant adjustment. That slightly grazing second hand dragged the cardboard face along with it at a rate of approximately a minute per hour, so to keep it properly oriented on the 12, every so often I had to stand up on my bed, touch my fingertips to the face, and like a safecracker turn it delicately to the left. I might have tried other solutions, an adhesive or a tack to keep the face from sliding, but I didn’t even consider them. I just didn’t think that way, in terms of repair that is; rather, I thought always in terms of adjustment, just keep adjusting and all would be well.

For a while I believed everyone thought this way, and it was the great trauma of my youth to realize that they didn’t. In industrialized society it is a rite of passage for boys to receive a watch as a sign of their manhood, because it is presumed that at twelve you now have somewhere to go by a certain time, and that if you don’t you’d better get used to the idea that you will. This gift (in German I am saying poison) I was very fond of. Every morning I put it on first thing and didn’t remove it until I hung it on my bedpost at night, my talisman. In summer, the skin beneath was the watch’s pale shadow; to amuse myself I used to fill in the white space with hands and numbers and try to coax people into asking me the time. I didn’t care that it was cheaply made; although it claimed right on its face to be SHOCK RESISTANT, who really is? When after a couple of bumps and scrapes it became extremely unpredictable, running fast and slow in no clear pattern, I enjoyed it all the more, since like my first clock it required constant adjustment, one might say it needed me.

Again, repairing it was simply unthinkable, I don’t mean for aesthetic reasons, I mean it was literally inconceivable. On all aptitude tests designed to demonstrate to the authorities your appropriate career path, I could never figure out which way to turn gearshaft A so that its teeth would mesh with those of B, C, and D in order to turn the shaft that would pour you a nice refreshing glass of water. This didn’t bother me, because I figured if I were confronted with this situation in real life, I would just try one way and then the other. However, as I grew older I came to understand that the test secretly had a grave premise: You are dying of thirst and have only one chance for water, and those who could not readily solve the Riddle of the Gnashing Teeth would have to rely on dumb luck, farm animal chicken’s-foot-on-the-feed-bar luck, in order to survive in this world, in order to prevent their genes from disappearing forever from the pool.

Apparently this was man’s greatest fear, but in order to show I was not afraid, I laughed in its face: Look at me, I don’t care about clocks and time, I’m surviving on adjustment alone! It thus became my obsession to experiment, to chew something and spit it out, to stay off all direct paths, above all to keep moving, because of course a moving target is harder to hit. As a young man I traveled any chance I could; whenever a sign would go up in school for a week in Mexico or a two-month internship for something or other in Japan, my application was always in the office the next day. Of course, none of the places I visited made that deep an impression on me; to me they were no more than colorful stamps in my passport, butterflies under glass. But then at twenty I bounced into Ireland for a year of vague study, and before I knew it had fallen under that country’s timeless, clockless spell. Like me, the Irish knew that time was a weapon of their oppressors, but since they couldn’t just run and hide, they rebelled by reversing the formula: those who cared about time, those who cared about “late” or “early”, they were the ones wasting their lives, they were the ones who would die before the others, and for what? I was considering this very idea, walking along the road one morning through a fine mist, when just as I reached the bridge spanning the narrow canal snaking through my village, as in a dream the entire world suddenly changed; all was clear and bright, the clouds were broken up into pieces and sailing swiftly by just above the rooftops. I leaned against the wall of the bridge, reeling from the beauty of such a rapid change, and bracing myself as well for the next, which came just as quickly, a brush of white across the sky, a cold breath of fine rain across my face and hands. I looked down at my watch, beads of water on the outside of the glass, tiny clouds of condensation within; perhaps it was crying, too, but I–what a joke, I thought, you couldn’t even read the thing! All at once I ripped it off my wrist–why was I still wearing my shackles?–and threw it into the canal!

Actually this did not happen. I thought about doing it, but then decided against it as too symbolic and therefore empty of meaning. It’s just that in this part of the story I’ve told to people ever since, I’ve always said “and threw it into the canal!” to great effect, especially among certain women, who likewise understand that time is a tool of their oppressors and want to believe that they are not presently with one of them. Other things I’ve said didn’t happen either, like that business about the milk bottle, that must have been obvious. If you must know, there was such a bridge, such a canal, and I did take the watch off but instead just put it in my pocket. Later I placed it in a shoebox with some other scraps of minimal value, class rings, wedding gifts, cufflinks, etc., all of which was stolen many years later from the storage bin in the basement of my apartment building in Trenton, New Jersey. I apologize for this digression, but it’s just that I suddenly became anxious that with all this sequence, this relentless ticking away of my clock history, I might have inadvertently lulled some of you to waking. Just a reminder, then, because I don’t want any misunderstandings, and because when the Clock-Winder of Glanz is finally and fully visible, I want you to believe just as easily in him as you do in me: This is not reality, this is the infinite, which of course resembles reality but is actually very different, something like history to story, or ice to water.

But perhaps I’ve underestimated you, perhaps you are saying impatiently, “Yes, yes, of course, the infinite, you said that–get on with it, then. You were in Ireland and might have remained in that congenial country for a lifetime,” and who knows, perhaps discovered The Clock-Winder of Gloureen, another story waiting to be told by some other withered branch of my family tree, if it hasn’t been already. I believe I boasted at the time that I was returning because at last I was free, because time couldn’t trap me now. But of course this was not the case. I didn’t yet have the proper understanding of time; to the contrary, for the next ten years I was in an even more desperate flight from it.

For a while I thought I was safe with Celia, whom I met on a blind date soon after I returned. I believe I fell for her the moment she told me the story of her mother’s nervous breakdown, and how every night just before going to bed they’d had to smother the chime-clock in the living room with pillows so that her mother wouldn’t be disturbed and go wandering through the house all night, peeling the skin off her fingers. Her mother hated the thing but couldn’t conceive of just getting rid of it; her husband had given it to her as an anniversary gift, what a coincidence, Celia said. It was awful, even worse when they tried to make a joke of it; they used to say they were “putting the clock to bed.”

In no time at all Celia had brought an interesting clock into my life. It hung suspended in a chrome rack like a make-up mirror, its face a silver and black map of the globe viewed from above the North Pole. A little red jet flew around the circumference in one-second bursts just within a slowly revolving circle of numbers from O to 23, a portion of which (19 to 5) was shaded in black to indicate the hours of full darkness. At intervals beyond the margin were short lists of world metropoli sharing the same time, so that you could see at a glance what time it was not only where you were (and who cared about that?) but where you would rather be, if only it were possible for you to stop your aimless circling and decide.

I say I thought I was safe with Celia because a person who grew up smothering clocks and whose only clock as an adult is like this one clearly doesn’t care about time either; and when in the world outside you failed to guess which gearshaft to turn, you could go home and say, well, she doesn’t know either, and thus could you survive. After two years, however, the clock’s battery wore down; pathetically the little jet had just enough fuel to continue for the next three years to try and tick its way past twenty after eleven, before at last it froze altogether, crashed, I guess, just before midnight, Seoul time, in the black waters of the Yellow Sea.

Incidentally, unlike the watch tossing, this actually happened, and perhaps it is clearer now how little the distinction matters. Anyway, since neither Celia nor I cared about time, we didn’t bother to get new batteries for her clock, which sat on the shelf collecting dust and cat hair and irritating guests who wanted to know if it was time to go home. Of course, one day Celia woke up and started to care about time, feared, I should say realized, she was wasting it. A couple of years after she left, I visited her in her new time zone. She was married and already had two children; she laughed that her biological clock had gone off with a bang. In all I counted seven clocks in the house. The one I knew was now strictly a novelty item, tucked away at the edge of a bookshelf like a trophy or a diploma; its glass shone so clearly you could see your reflection in it, and the little jet seemed to be swimming through its orbits in a kind of ecstasy.

I wished Celia well, and actually meant it; there was no point in pretending, as I had for a while, that it could have been me. Still, I suffered in her absence; flushed from my burrow, I stood there blinded by the bright sun, exposed to the ravages of time. I tried to hide in my work, but either out of perversity or because I thought it would make me less conspicuous, I had drifted several years before into real estate; with all that buying and selling, all that leasing, no field could be more in the thrall of time. I felt squeezed, caught in my own trap; repair seemed impossible, but now, for the first time, so did adjustment.

Then my grandfather died, a major event in my family’s history, since he was the last of the twelve sons of our great immigrant patriarch, John Mittach. You could barely move at the wake; the room was crammed with nearly all of his surviving 144 descendants. At one point I found myself standing next to the funeral director–Joe Toddle, a second or third cousin of mine–who whispered me aside and discreetly presented me with a little box. Inside, resting on a soft bed of black tissue paper, was a shiny gold watch. I was stunned–since when did pallbearers receive gifts? Joe smiled, cleared his throat. Hadn’t I been told? My aunt had taken a peek at my grandfather’s will, which specifically mentioned that as his namesake I should have his watch. Joe paused, studied my face, but even after I thanked him he kept looking at me as though I were supposed to deliver a punch line–please, you aren’t grieving too much, not at all really, and there’s so little opportunity for levity in this line of work. “Oh–Just in time, eh?” I added, and he went away beaming.

It was a handsome watch, a Hamilton if that means anything. On the back it was inscribed 25 Year Club, Lone Star Cement Corp., Artemus Mittach, 1950. It kept excellent time if you took care to wind it twice a day, and though I especially enjoyed how its second hand had a little face all to itself in which to spin around, I decided not to think that way any more. Yes, if Celia could do it so suddenly, why couldn’t I? For nothing seemed clearer than the fact that this fine watch was my chance to claim my irrevocable membership in the fraternity of time. At once I had a dozen links removed so that it fit more snugly on my wrist and no one would be the wiser; if anybody started to look at me askance I could just flash them the watch, Oh, Mr. Mittach, I beg your pardon, come right in, Sir! After a while they would get used to seeing me there and never look twice. I planned to wear it every day, consult it dutifully for information, not for aesthetic pleasure. I would never again be late, it just wouldn’t happen, and I would be vexed at those who kept me waiting. It would tick away my life as it had that of my grandfather, they would have to remove it from my corpse at the last second (and no earlier, I would make that provision clear) and hand it over to one of my grandchildren, hang it around his useless neck, because now I would have grandchildren, a dozen dozen of them perhaps, the inevitable products of a life in time.

Of course, it was impossible for me to see that, to the contrary, this fine watch marked the beginning of the end of my clock history, the alarming little vortex that suddenly appears in the sandpool of an hourglass and in an instant sucks it dry. On the day of my watch’s debut, instead of just plunging into the clockworld headlong, as I probably should have done, to get it over with I mean, I hoped to ease my way in, scheduling just one appointment for twelve noon sharp, what on earth could be simpler? But as a result, for the three hours preceding I could do nothing else except pace slow circles around the office, checking and winding my new life every five minutes or so. Finally at precisely ten minutes before noon, I turned to the door, thinking, “Now it is time for my appointment.” I took a few steps, one last time my fingers worked nervously away at my wrist. Suddenly I heard a tiny snap, and then, after an awful silence, a faint puff; when I imagine these sounds now, it is like a cannon shot. I believe I saw the glint of the broken stem falling like a shooting star before it vanished forever into the jungle fibers of the gold shag carpet at my feet, or perhaps that was me falling. The next time I came fully to consciousness I was sitting on my bed at home sipping a cool glass of water. I didn’t know who was kind enough to give it to me, just that I certainly couldn’t have got it myself. The room was dark, I had no idea what time it was, what day, or even what year; I believe for a long moment I had forgotten that there was such a thing as time. Gradually I began to wake up. I pressed my hands against my face, rubbed slow circles around my forehead, temples, cheeks, and chin. I was alive, but just barely; I felt dry and flat, a cardboard representation of myself, a minor exhibit in a packed gallery of fools, another guilty rogue in the Calendar:

ARTEMUS MITTACH

Thought He Could Escape Time

II

Time does not heal all wounds. For one thing it often causes them, and then afterwards just widens the gash until like Job the afflicted individual is simply all wound. Nonetheless, sudden breakdowns are useful, if only because for better or worse you always emerge as someone else entirely. Even your body feels different; in my case, my skin felt extraordinarily soft and tender, so that I was tempted to take a big bite out of it, as one might a peach. Not that my problems had vanished, nor did I feel ready now to face them head on; in fact, I still had only a vague idea what these problems were. I just knew that whatever they were, they were insoluble.

But that didn’t matter, because I was now distinctly someone else, or rather, I was not who I was, or better still I was no one in the thin disguise of that entity known previously to the world as Art Mittach. When people addressed me by name they seemed merely to be reading it off a sign hanging around my neck. I found this detachment from myself a great relief; a man out of time, a man for whom the bell has tolled, whose clock history is done–if he is not free, he is at least unbound. Of course, I knew that this would become a very serious problem, the gash-widening I just spoke of. It was only a matter of time before people started demanding that I rebuild a little more quickly; after all, lunch was long over, it was now clearly the afternoon, and there I was still just sitting there, I had neither bought nor sold a single deed. But at the first sign that my grace period was over–and don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to have belonged to a people that had the luxury of allowing its broken souls even that much time to mend–when the game was up, I say, I was fully prepared to throw up my hands in surrender, do with me what you will.

I would like to assert this willingness to surrender, this total absence of a struggling will, as that which opened the door, and my eyes, to everything that has happened since, except that I fear some troubled people in the audience will say, “OK, that sounds good, I surrender too,” and then something terrible will happen instead, and somehow I’d be responsible. No, it isn’t something you can prescribe, like a medicine or a diet, and there’s no use trying to fake it; either you have surrendered to the deep waters of the infinite, to its uncertain, shifting tides, or you remain anchored to the world that has no use for you, no room, and so slowly pushes you deeper into the hole that has cracked open at your feet, your desperate efforts only making the downward slide that much easier, until at last you’re swallowed up altogether.

So there I was, going through the most basic motions of what had been my life but was no longer, my hand ready with the white flag, when one afternoon at work I received a letter from my father’s cousin’s cousin, who wrote to say that his cousin in Austria, Sepl Maurer, had some property to sell very cheap, if I was interested. I should mention that there was nothing amazing about this, I received letters like this all the time. My family, the 144 surviving strains of John Mittach’s double helix, was like a corporate conglomerate; everyone had their tiny box in the flow chart, their cubicle in the office labyrinth, and most of them were conveniently clustered in and around New Jersey. If someone had a rash, they called my brother Peter in Dermatology; if the rash only got worse and proved fatal, they called Joe Toddle; if there was a question of the value of the deceased’s property, if it had the word property in it at all, the question always eventually funneled down to me. So there was no good reason for this letter to pique my interest at all, except that in my present state I realized, sad and glad, that it was perhaps the last of its kind I would ever receive. At my grandfather’s funeral I’d overheard some talk about a cousin’s nephew who was just out of college and had “a real gift” for real estate. I imagine he has even now assumed my former position in the corporation, which has always been quick to plug its holes.

But I certainly had no interest in the property; at the time I found it extremely hard to be interested in anything, least of all in a piece of farm in a remote corner of Austria. In fact, the very idea that I, who at the moment was no one at all, would be interested in something so real as land seemed absolutely absurd. I must have laughed out loud, or made some sound anyway, or perhaps it was just the kind of thing that happens when you have surrendered and are being pulled further away from shore, because when I looked up everyone in the office had swung around in their chairs toward me. They looked puzzled; no, I really don’t believe I had made a sound. In any case I smiled, apologized–this dumb letter, see. I read the contents, and at first they all found it funny too, but then there was this long pause, and then the office manager Bret Platt shrugged that it might be worth going, that at the very least I should see what they wanted for it. A few of the others chimed in their agreement, and suddenly the idea caught fire; in no time there were ten thousand reasons why I absolutely had to go, and they practically dragged me out of my chair to the boss’s office to ask permission for a leave of absence. As I was being led along, I could think only that this was it, the final stage of my grace period. The idea is to give you one last easy chance so that then, if and when you fail to snap out of your uselessness, the world can say in good conscience, “It’s too bad about Artie, but we did all we could.” It’s a most efficient system, perhaps even fair; it’s impossible to see it as harsh or cruel (or even see it at all) unless you are a man out of time, but by then you just don’t care. Still, even I was shocked to see the gears turning so perfectly. When Mr. Urmach gave his blessing to the trip a little too enthusiastically–jumped out of his chair and shook my hand in immediate farewell, said he thought it was just the thing I needed to unwind–even I could see that the teeth of A, B, C and D were grinding me out of (and not into) the world for good.

Parts III and IV coming soon…

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