Frederick stood rooted to the spot in front of The Persistence of Memory.
A group of students stood idly at the next painting over. An old man sat on the bench behind him. Frederick guessed they were all waiting for him to move out of the way of the painting so they could have a turn. Alas, Frederick could not. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the painting. It ignited a fire in him. He could feel it from the tips of his fingers to the pit of his stomach.
Frederick was intent on mastering time.
He looked at his watch, then back at the painting. He was not checking the time. Rather, he was looking at the watch itself. The watch had been his grandfather’s, and Frederick knew it was the key to accomplishing the feat.
“Mind if I have a turn?”
Frederick was jolted out of his reverie. He did mind, but when he turned to the speaker, this thought – in fact, all of his thoughts – dissipated. A girl his age stood over his shoulder. She was wearing a yellow sundress and sported a mass of rather unruly hair.
“Uh, yeah, sure,” Frederick stammered. He shuffled to the side. The girl stood beside him. She stood there for a rather long time without saying anything, staring raptly at the painting, much like Frederick had. After a while, she looked at him.
“I’m Violet,” she said.
He smiled awkwardly. “Frederick.”
Standing there in front of those melting clocks, Frederick and Violet’s timelines collided.
Frederick and Violet were only kids when they met. As time passed, their love grew, and they built a life together. They married each other as soon as they could. They bought a little house with a little garden, and they had children. All the while, Frederick remained devoted to what he knew his destiny was: traveling in time. Every night when Violet and the children went to bed, he stayed awake for hours at the kitchen table, tinkering with his grandfather’s watch. The table was always littered with small tools and books about quantum physics, along with a cup of tea that Violet always made him, which always went cold. As time marched forward, and his life passed by without stopping, his obsession deepened. His babies lost their baby fat and grew into toddlers, who grew into raucous children, who grew into moody teenagers. He became agonizingly aware that they, too, would one day grow old like him. Violet’s hair became streaked with threads of silver like tinsel, and the corners of her wrinkled as if in a permanent smile. Years passed, and despite many hours of tinkering, the watched remained an ordinary watch, albeit with a few new gears.
One day, Violet passed away.
Frederick sat beside the bed, holding her frail fingers. He placed her hand on her chest and caressed the top of her head. As he did so, he looked at his watch. He wanted to know what time she had passed, so that he could think of her dearly each day when the minute hand ticked there. However, the watch had stopped, suspended forever in the moment that Violet’s time came to an end.
The house was quiet now. Violet had been laid to rest. The children had their own homes now, with their own children. Frederick was retired, so he had nowhere to be, nothing to do. He flicked the light on, sat at the kitchen table, and pulled out his tools. He worked late into the night. When he couldn’t work any longer, he retired to bed. The next day, he did the same.
One day, Frederick gave up.
He had been working on the watch for hours. It was nearly two o’clock in the morning. He couldn’t even get the watch to tell the current time, much less take him back in time. His stiff fingers ached, and his old eyes struggled to see the small parts. He set the watch down on the table and sat back in his chair, looking at it. With a bittersweet feeling, he saw that the only remaining purpose of the watch was to be a sentimental relic.
He looked at the time on the clock that hung on the kitchen wall. Tacked to the wall next to the clock was a small note that Violet had written him shortly before she passed, in her slanting cursive. He had put it there because the clock was the place he looked the most frequently, and he liked to be reminded of her. The note read, When you figure it out, come back to see me. He cherished the fact that she believed in him, even after all these years: the fact that she wrote when rather than if. He felt a pang of guilt. He was stuck, alone, on time’s unyielding linear trajectory.
He took the note down from the wall and folded it as small as his old hands would allow. Sitting back down at the kitchen table, he gingerly wedged it between the gears of the watch and replaced the back panel. The gears wouldn’t turn anyway, so the note would be no interruption. This way, he would carry Violet’s note with him always. He enjoyed the thought of having words she had written with her own living hands so close, right on the pulse of his wrist. Frederick put the watch back on his wrist and fastened the strap.
He looked at the face of the watch, thinking lovingly of Violet. As he did so, he was overcome by a dizzy, tingling sensation. His vision blurred. He thought vaguely that he might be dying. Given his age, this would not have been unexpected.
However, after a moment, the feeling passed. He became puzzled when he realized that he was no longer in his kitchen chair; he was on a bench.
He looked up and saw the back of a boy’s blue jeans and sweater, and beyond, The Persistence of Memory.