The first watch I ever bought was a Timex Expedition. I was fourteen and had gotten my first paycheck. I bought it at a department store. It was on a small fake oak table with a picture of a man standing on top of a mountain in hiking clothes. I paid fifty dollars for it. The battery ran out in it something like a decade later.
Last night, while cleaning out my old tackle box I found it tucked away in the top shelf compartment. It had been rattling around with a bunch of little leaden split weights.
Picking it up out of the little plastic coffin, I wiped away the thin patina of green from the leather band. I pried off the back. CR2016. I had a partial package of them, dry cells, found in a nightstand drawer I repaired. The nightstand got a new drawer slide and sold for forty dollars. I made five bucks profit.
I put the back of the watch case into the freezer and left it there while I ate my sandwich for supper. When I had finished the sandwich and drank a soda, I put the battery in and snapped the back of the watch into the body. I looked up at the stove clock, and set the time. Hour hand to six, the minute hand to six, and then four minutes more. There was a familiar warmth of pleasure in my neck.
Next morning I woke up and brewed the coffee. Waking up without a hangover is something I am still getting used to. It has been ten years or so since my last one. I got dressed and felt another little thrill of pleasure when I put the watch on. I poured my cup of coffee and filled my thermos with the rest. I put it into my truck and watched the sun rise while sitting on my tailgate. The cold seeped right through the seat of my jeans. I lingered over my coffee. I hung the empty cup on it’s peg in the shop. Getting in my truck, the first rays of light shone through the trees. The mist showed little beams of gold.
I fired up my truck. The throaty roar and the smell of gas was my familiar friend, like the first hot cup of coffee with sunrise. I pulled out, heading to the store and bought two sandwiches, one for dinner, one for supper. I drove through our little town to my first job of the day. I looked down at my watch. Instead of a thrill of pleasure, I felt a jolt of ice. The hour hand pointed to eleven, the minute hand pointed to three past the hour.
Damned thing. I just replaced the battery last night, and it already quit. I knew good and well it wasn’t eleven already. I sighed and let the irritation go. Who knew how long those batteries had been in that drawer? Nothing lasts forever.
I pulled up to Mrs. Burns house, killing the engine. She opened the door. Mrs. Burns can’t hear, but she can feel my truck coming through her feet. "Good morning, sorry I'm late," I said as I slammed my truck door. She signed to me, "That's okay, no idea you were late. Before you look at the door to the pantry, will you do me a favor? My clocks have stopped working."
I signed back as well as I could, and said aloud too, "Sure, show it to me." I am not a clock worker, but I have it in me to attempt any puzzle. She led me into the hall and pointed to her tall clock made of oak and brass.
It is an old grandfather clock. It had stopped working. I examined the dial. I opened the crystal door below the face. I poked the pendulum. It swung a little, without much enthusiasm.
Mrs. Burns touched my shoulder. I turned around to look at her. I focused on her face, a necessity to understand her sign language. Her face was puzzled, clearer than signs. She signed, "You know what is odd, ALL of the clocks have stopped. I think every clock in the house has stopped working. Isn't that strange?"
I had to admit to myself that it was odd. The pendulum clock winds with a key. Her mantle clock, which was pretty, took batteries. I went around the house. The kitchen clock, which made sounds of a different type of bird every hour and had pictures of birds, had also stopped. It took two AA batteries.
Mrs. Burns had followed me. I turned around and looked at her face and signed, saying aloud, "May I look at the clock by your bed?" Mrs. Burns nodded, and led me to the room. In it, on her nightstand was a silver and black digital clock, plugged into the wall. It was the type which has bright blue bars which light up to display the time and date with Arabic numerals. It read, "88:88:88 88/88/88". I muttered, "Curiouser and curiouser." Mrs. Burns, who has a habit of watching my lips, chuckled.
I should admit that I am both new to sign language and about as poor at communicating out loud in English. People are a challenge for me. Mrs. Burns had helped me learn to communicate with her pretty well. I like Mrs. Burns. This is why I do her jobs first.
I looked at the clock, feeling foolish. There was an obvious answer to this riddle. I knew there had to be. I felt my brain hurt with the effort of thinking. Three types of mechanisms, a mechanical clock with a key, spring and gears, two battery powered clocks, with quartz timing crystals, and this 110 volt digital clock, with, whatever makes that type keep time. All failed, the same day.
I felt a jolt which made my limbs twitch. My own battery powered watch had stopped working this morning also. I had just replaced the battery last night. It had vexed me hadn't it? The oddity became yet more odd.
I looked at my Timex, little hand on the eleven, long hand on three minutes past the hour. I sidled past Mrs. Burns who was following me about the house in my confusion. I took long steps through the kitchen, the singing bird clock read three minutes after eleven as best I could tell. Little hand on the red cardinal picture, long hand just past the owl. I thumped into the hall, the old oak grandfather clock with it’s sad, motionless pendulum, read three minutes past eleven.
I sat down on the hard, wooden floor in the hallway. Mrs. Burns sat herself in an armchair next to the clock. She looked at me while I sat thinking. My watch, four clocks in her house, had all stopped working. It seemed they had all done this at the same time. It was too much for coincidence. Mrs. Burns waved her hand at me. I looked up at her. She signed, "It is completely crazy, isn’t it?" I nodded. She pointed at my watch. I nodded again. She looked up at the sky and shrugged.
I got to my feet. I told her, and signed, “I am going to walk over to next door.” She got up and followed me. Her neighbor is an old fellow named Steve Henrick. We walked through the field that separates their houses along a well worn footpath. We came to the back door of his house through the carport, stepping around old engine blocks, cylinder heads and car parts. I banged on the tattered screen door hard enough to make the rusty spring rattle. Mr. Henrick isn’t deaf like Mrs. Burns, but he certainly can't hear well.
“What ya working on Phil?” Steve said. He opened the screen door to let us in and his dog almost knocked me over as it ran past. “Damnit Hank!” Steve yelled. “Come on in Phil. Mornin’ Susie,” Steve said. Mrs. Burns name is Susie, but I don’t call her that. I stepped in the kitchen. It smelled like grease and cigarettes. “Want coffee?” Steve asked. "Yes please,” I said. Steve leaned down where Mrs. Burns could see him better, he held up his coffee mug and pointed to it. Mrs. Burns nodded at him.
Steve poured us some cups of coffee and doctored them with cream and sugar. I normally drink it black, but Steve has never cared to ask me how I like my coffee. “There ya go Phil,” Steve said. He set my coffee down in front of me. “So, what you up to son?” Steve asked. I sipped some coffee first. Then I said, “Well, I came this morning to fix Mrs. Burns' door, the pantry door. It's been sticking.” Steve nodded, “Yep, you ain’t havin’ trouble with it are ya?”
I shook my head, “I haven’t even looked at it yet. Something else happened. It's pretty weird Steve. All the clocks in Mrs. Burns' house stopped working.” Steve broke in, “Power go out?”
I shook my head again. “No it can’t be just that,” I said, “her old wind up clock in the hall went out. The bird clock in the kitchen and the mantle clock stopped too. They run on batteries. And what’s even more wild, my damn watch stopped too. All of them are stopped on three after eleven. Except the plug in clock. That one is all eights.”
Steve sat and chewed on that for a moment. I added after a little thought, “I just replaced the battery in my watch. It was with some old package of batteries that I found in an end table drawer. Who knows if they were already going bad, but it worked last night for a while anyhow.” Steve made a little whistle. He twisted around in his chair. I followed his glance. He was looking at his stove clock. It was the old kind with hands. The hour hand was on eleven, the minute hand was at three minutes past.
“I’ll be damned,” Steve said. He looked back at me. I shrugged. “It beats the hell out of me,” I said. Steve looked over at Mrs. Burns, and said “What do you think Susie?” Mrs. Burns was looking at him when he spoke. She crossed her eyes and shrugged. Steve slapped a hand on the table. “Lets drive up to the store,” he said, “bet we find something out up there.” Steve doesn’t have a television either.
I opened the back door of the burgundy Cadillac for Mrs. Burns. She likes to ride in the back if we go somewhere with Steve. She told me once it makes her feel like she is being chauffeured. I like to ride shotgun, so I have never argued with her. I sank into the old leather and felt it mold around me. I sneezed. Steve smokes in his car and it always makes me sneeze. When Steve started the car, I looked at the dash. The digital clock on it read, “88:88”. I said, “Well your car clock is just like Mrs. Burns’ one on the nightstand.” Steve grunted.
We didn’t see anyone on the road, which isn’t really unusual. I looked out the window to see where the sun was. It was pretty high up, but not noon. My stomach growled. That put us at about eleven, where my stomach was concerned. Steve wheeled us into the grocery store. I opened up the back door again to let Mrs. Burns out. We walked up to the place, kinda slow to let Mrs. Burns keep up. For an old fellow Steve walks pretty fast as a rule.
There were a few cars in the parking lot besides ours. We went through the auto-sliding door and felt the blast of air that kicks on every time you go in or out. Steve was leading the way to the deli counter. There is a television there, which is why I supposed Steve was headed that way. I looked around for a clock, I knew there was one somewhere in the store. Right over the door we came in, a black and white clock with hands. I almost jumped out of my skin. “Steve,” I said. Steve didn't hear me. “Steve!” I shouted. “What, huh?” Steve said. He turned around. I pointed at the clock. The big hand was on twelve, the little hand was on twelve.
Steve looked at it for a moment. Then he shrugged. “Okay, so it’s noon?” he asked. I blinked at him. He kept walking. I felt hot, and chilled, all at the same time. I haven’t had a drink in over ten years, since the last time I got put in jail. Am I losing my mind? I asked myself inside my head. Am I going crazy? I asked myself again. I clawed at my face, I felt the nails bite into my cheeks. I shivered all over. My vision blurred.
Mrs. Burns put her hand on my arm. Then she patted me. I turned around to look at her. She pointed to her eyes, then at mine. Look at me, she was saying. I stopped clawing my face. She patted my arm again, then stroked my cheeks. She shook her head. Don’t do that, she meant. She took my arm and led me to the counter where Steve was already ordering a sandwich.
I took a deep breath. Mrs. Burns was taking a pad out of her purse to write her sandwich order on. Steve paid for his sandwich. I ordered mine, which wasn’t hard, because I always get the same sandwich, roast beef, with the same things on it. Kelly, the lady who makes my sandwiches, gave me a puzzled look. “Phil, don’t usually make you three sandwiches in a day,” she said. I nodded, “I left my other sandwiches in my cooler.” She smiled and nodded. Her ponytail bobbed and she said, “Oh okay, cool.”
I asked her as casually as I could, “Did someone mess with the clock over there?” She looked up at me. “Yeah,” she said, “John was trying to fix it this morning. You haven’t heard, have you?” I shook my head. She rolled her eyes. “Right,” she said, “of course you haven’t. Weirdest thing happened today. It’s all over the news.” She thrust her chin in the direction of the television on the wall. Steve was already sitting at one of the booths looking up at it, noshing on his sandwich. She wrapped up my roast beef sandwich with slender fingers wrapped in flimsy dimpled plastic. Handing it over the counter she shucked her gloves and started to ring me up. “Every clock has taken a collective poo, apparently, at the same time. Isn’t that wild?” she said while she punched on the old adding machine. I handed over my five dollar bill and two quarters.
I sat down next to Steve and stared up at the television while devouring my own sandwich. A blonde lady in a red shirt was droning on about all the ramifications of the sudden hiccup in timekeeping. Stock market on hold, airplane flights being canceled, and so on. Temporary paralysis, the lady droned, scientists and officials are working on it.
I shivered again and tried to take one deep breath after another. I got a few breaths down. Sanity seemed to be trickling back in. Then I resumed inhaling my roast beef sandwich. Mrs. Burns sat across from me. I tried to tell her in my bad sign language that we weren’t crazy. I told her all the clocks in the country, maybe even the world, had died. She looked across as she nibbled her egg salad sandwich. She had a little mysterious smile on her face. It seemed like she was more amused than surprised. She crossed her eyes and shrugged. She leaned forward and patted my forearm. Then she squeezed it. She signed, "You are okay son, you are just fine."
I smiled at her. I started to feel okay, just like she said. I signed to her in my bad sign language, "What do you suppose this means for, say, bank guards?"
She grinned. She signed back, "For that matter, retail employees. Anyone at all paid by the hour. Will the stock market crash do you suppose?"
I laughed out loud. Steve looked over at me with a grunt, his mouth full of pastrami and rye. He went back to staring at the television. I signed to Mrs. Burns, "It already has. Well, it stopped cold anyway."
Mrs. Burns signed back to me, "Let's get Steve to take us to go get an ice cream after we eat these sandwiches."
I signed to her, "The ice cream place over by the bank?"
I signed, "Yes, let's."
Her mysterious smile came back. She signed, "What do you suppose their hours are?" We both chuckled.