The old clock stopped. Facing it was its chronological counterpart; a mirror suffering age spots that distorted the clock’s image stuck at 6:32. It was like the final date on a gravestone. Its brass pendulum dangled dormant below the face.
It was new on their wedding day. The groom’s father called it a “Regulator,” an accurate wall clock that would ring out the hours 24 times a day.
“There,” his father said, starting the pendulum on its swing. “A friend forever, beating its heart to mark where you’ve been, where you are, and….”
“Where I’m going.”
“Where all of us are going. Would that it beats long after I’m gone.”
It was a clock you’d find in a train station, accurate and utilitarian, the way his father expected his son to lead his life.
It had to be key wound each morning. And the son did just that. Then children would do it, fighting for turns until the day arrived when they’d argue that it was someone else’s chore. He was happy to take back the job.
It had ticked tocked across from the mirror since the first Roosevelt had been in the White House. The mirror came from the bride’s widowed mother. She never knew her father. He died just before she was born from, so it was said, a mini ball that entered his spine at Gettysburg. That wedding day, her mother stood before the mirror and said, “You can look at yourselves as the years pass.” She looked around to make sure no one was listening and whispered, “That mirror holds those images forever.”
The bride rolled her eyes. Her mother was, after all, a spiritualist, holding séances and fiddling with a Ouija board to her daughter’s eternal amusement. Decades later, when Ike was in charge, that same daughter sat back in her comfy armchair lullabied by the Regulator’s soft ticking. And memories and knew her mother had been right all along. Her children argued over elements of the will, but agreed the clock and the mirror should stay together. The daughter got them because she still had young children. They would sit in front of the clock counting as it chimed out the hours. She would tell them to look into the mirror, that they might see themselves growing up, as she could, once.
“It’s like beating the speed of light and looking back!” exclaimed the older boy.
“And how on earth do you know about the speed of light?” asked the mother.
Little James climbed the chair to put his ear to the mirror. “I can hear the clock when it was little!”
There was a practical element to her getting the clock. Her husband was an engineer who liked to tinker. But other than polishing the wood and oiling the mechanism, he never had to do anything beyond the daily wind. That came to an end when the children would play “Inka-dink, a bottle of ink” to determine who would wind it. Then they moved on, to college, careers, life, and another will.
James was tasked with emptying the house.
His brother didn’t care. “Goodwill,” was all he’d written in an email to the estate attorney.
“But what about getting ahead of the speed of light?” James asked.
The brother said he didn’t know what he was talking about.
The sister demanded “that dear Navaho rug Gramps got when he worked on the reservation.”
James reminded her of the appraisal on the Antique Road Show; she retorted they always hyped values. After an angry hang-up, she agreed to reduce her share of the inheritance by $10,000 to cover the rug. He could have everything else in the house.
“But you pay for hauling. It’s only fair.”
Goodwill collected the contents. James took the clock, the mirror, and the tax break. It was only fair.
James placed them facing one another in his den and wound the clock. He tapped the pendulum, adjusting the hands to 4:04. He had to smile at the Roman numeral IIII. Gramps once explained that this is what was done for symmetry; “Jamie, there are four numbers with Xs and four with Vs and four with only Is. It should be IV, but then you’d have too many Vs.”
“Balance, too! Eight would be the only number with four letters, V, I, I and another I. Only the four could be done that way, I, I, I and I.”
His grandfather looked at the clock. James was right; no other number would have four Roman numerals. “Well done, Jamie. Well done.”
That evening, the clock rang out at five, six, and seven. James lifted his head to the familiar sound, then gave full attention to an episode of “Mystery” on PBS. When the show ended James realized he’d stopped hearing the chimes. A flick on the pendulum resulted in a lifeless swing. He tried winding it. The clock offered a few hopeful tick-tocks, the pendulum moved in a feeble arch, the chimes rang the eight bells they’d lost two hours earlier. As if exhausted by such effort, the clock came to a rest.
His father might know what to do, but Dad was long gone, and James needed YouTube tutorials before changing a light bulb. YouTube had dozens of videos of strange men with odd tools hovering over the autopsied remains of a once upon a time. Tutorials all started with easy advice; open the clock face and reveal the works. But when it came to the levers to say nothing of escapements, gear trains, and more wheels than a Good Year dealer — James was lost.
Sometimes, James would wake to imagine he heard the chimes. What woke him weren’t the rings, but their absence.
He wasn’t the only one to feel that way. “Gramps,” a granddaughter asked, “Can I wind it please?”
“Oh, that thing stopped. Busted.”
“It’s old like Grampa.” That didn’t get the laugh he’d hoped for.
“Don’t throw it away!”
Throw it away? It wasn’t just some busted eyesore. He told his granddaughter no; they wouldn’t throw it away. She clapped her hands. It was all she needed to do.
Calls to repair shops were futile. Antique clocks were no longer in vogue; the clock repair trade followed. When James googled for repair shops, the few websites he went to advertised that the URL was available. Others teased with phone numbers no longer in service. He did find a place that called itself ‘The Clockery.” The Clockery was now fixing phones. At least he got his cracked screen replaced.
James considered a replacement. It wasn’t the cost; the lack of demand that squelched the repairmen’s lot also dampened the price of antiques in perfect repair. Old they were, but new to him and that made all the difference. He almost bought one, an Ansonia, from a town that had rusted out years before. The clock ticked nicely. The gong was crisp. But it hadn’t ticked for his family. It was a foster clock.
A Craigslist posting generated a curious response teasing “a better time than any clock’s hands could provide.” He was impressed with the creativity, even if it didn’t promise to ring his specific chimes. It was back to regret that his mechanical insights stopped at righty-tighty.
“Jim, me. Guess what I found.” A friend came across a shop somewhere in Vermont that claimed it could fix old clocks. The name of the shop was, with evident Yankee frugality, “The ClockMan.” James asked about a website. His friend cautioned that he’d be lucky if they had a phone. “It’s not exactly state-of-the-art. Maybe it was in ’98; 1898. But I tell you, Jim, they got all these clocks ringing out at the same time. That’s gotta be a good sign.”
James found a phone number off a URL for a Yankee magazine piece on back roads of New England from 1983. A photo of the shop looked like a set for a Norman Rockwell painting. James called and called and called again. There was no answering machine and he very much doubted it was a cell phone that would record a caller. Luck finally struck.
A voice answered, simply, “ClockMan.” James was able to get in a few words, but after the word “Regulator,” he was interrupted by a brusque admonition that he couldn’t tell a thing without seeing it “in the flesh.”
James thought he had to provide more information, or anyway get some, so he tried to ask if ClockMan had worked on a Regulator. Before he could finish, ClockMan confirmed that he had.
“Not a lot, mind you. I hate those Regulators.”
That worried James.
“Mr. James was it? They made them to put a clock repair shop like mine, which was my father’s, by the way, after the war, the Great War that is, out of business. You follow?”
James explained there was no need for Mister, and that he only sort of followed.
“Best damn clocks to tick themselves into oblivion. If they hadn’t gone under in the Depression, we might have gone under. German springs, you see. Tariffs did ‘em in. US of A springs didn’t hold up and don’t ask about the junk from Japan. Then it was electric clocks. Real crap but kept the business up. Do you know the Kit-Cat Klock?”
James confessed he didn’t.
“Sure you do. Cat’s eyes move one way, tail goes the other, belly is the clockface. Sold thousands. Had a running ad in Yankee. That’s why they did the piece on me. Pulled it next year. Know why?”
James confessed he didn’t.
“Started making them in China. Not red China, but China still. Think I’d sell something made in China? Think again.”
ClockMan talked on though James didn’t think he could have stopped him except by hanging up, and he still had the issue of his broken clock. ClockMan went on about being retired, but not really, worrying who’d take over when his ‘spring got sprung.’ He got teary about the fine clocks no one bothered to pick up and how he thought that was cruel.
“I see it in their faces, you know. I mean real clocks, not those electric gee gahs, and I don’t touch ones that glow. You don’t have one that glows, do you?”
James reminded him that his was a Regulator. “Oh, yeah, I hate those, but if anyone alive can fix it, it’s probably me. Bring it tomorrow.”
“I could FedEx it.”
The phone went silent for the only dead air of the call.
“You told me it’s been in your family for years. Would you be okay if FedEx broke it? Lost it? I don’t have a lot of time on my hands. Don’t have a lot of time, period. I fix clocks that people care about. You care? Bring it wrapped in a blanket.”
“You’re right of course.” James was embarrassed that he’d been so cavalier as to think he could post it as if it was some Amazon thing made in China. “I’ll bubble wrap it for protection.”
A burst ensued. “No bubble wrap! Blanket, wool if you have. You want to keep it warm. Keeps the oil from gunking up. Keeps the veneer from cracking. It’s got veneer. Walnut. They really knew how to make those Regulators, why I could…”
ClockMan went on. James listened at first, offered a series of “a huhs,” managing to finish the Thursday New York Times crossword when ClockMan asked, “You there?”
James coughed out a thanks for the fascinating history, intrigued by the man’s knowledge, trying to recall some details from the oration to prove he’d listened. “And no bubble wrap.”
That Vermont is a rural state. But just how rural the part of Vermont where ClockMan took root surprised James. He drove on a dirt road that edged a meandering river, ice forming along its banks. He passed ancient dairy farms with sagging barns and broken silos supplemented with rusted “Genuine Vermont Maple Syrup” signs. The sporadic Holsteins fields made him wonder if there’d be more once they’d uttered their final moo.
He almost missed a wooden sign in desperate need of paint that stood in front of a home demanding a painter in equal measure. It read, “ClockMan” and, with the meticulous clarity of the man himself, “Clocks and Repairs” below that.
James jingled bells that hung from the workshop’s door. A gruff voice said, ‘It’s open.’ He opened the door but wasn’t sure he could make it any farther. Confronting him was a wall of clocks, all registering the exact time of 8:52, and boxes and tables covered with more boxes, along with the internal organs of innumerable clocks. A voice commanded, “Go left.” James managed to squeeze through a narrow canyon of clocks that ended at a counter. An elfin old man in overalls sat behind it. He squinted behind thick glasses, his head tilted to one side, assessing James’ approach.
“Buying or selling?” he asked.
“Repairs, actually. I called.”
“Good, because I’m not buying, and if you said you were buying, I’d drop dead of another heart attack. A repair maybe I can do. Where’s the patient?”
James retrieved the blanket-wrapped clock. He moved at a cautious pace, taking in the mixed aroma of sawdust, shellac, and age. Old clock faces looked down on, stoic and proud.
Had it been any other time, seconds earlier, seconds later, things would have been different. But it was 9:00 on the button, and when he went to lay his clock on the counter the chimes of 33 clocks rang at once. A startled James jumped back, the clock leaped forward, and the two feet separating them from the counter was enough to allow the clock to fall mightily to the floor.
ClockMan leaned over the counter, watching Phillip kneel before the remains of an 1897 Regulator Clock. “You want to watch that glass,” he said, handing over a brush and a dustbin. He went on with a set of no-argument-instructions: “bring the works up here,” “mind that spring,” “don’t bend the hands.” Each order concluded with a “dammit.” He felt like a five-year-old who’d let the puppy wander out the front door. When he’d put the debris in front of ClockMan, he wiped his tears with his sleeve.
James looked at the pile of broken wood, shattered glass, and unknown components of steel and brass. The only thing more or less intact was the face. He considered a burial. He thought maybe he’d collect it all and just keep it in a box, pieces of a past.
ClockMan rummaged through the heap, “ahems” and “ah hahs” accompanying the effort.
“Well, not a major problem.”
He looked past James and let out a cheery, “Hello.” James turned to follow his gaze. There was no one. Perhaps ClockMan’s springs had sprung after all. ClockMan maneuvered himself around the counter, holding its edge for support, his eyes searching down a narrower aisle than the one James had taken. It was a slow amble marked by the ticking of the surrounding clocks.
ClockMan stopped halfway down the aisle, looking up. “Give me a hand here.” James joined him to stare at an Ansonia Regulator, same model, same year, same face as his own. Identical almost. Had he not just shattered it he would have sworn that this was his. But the more he studied it, the more he could see differences. The veneer wasn’t quite so crinkled. The luster was brighter. The pendulum lacked dings. And it was working. The ticking, the tocking, the movement were jittery; not quite what he was used to. ClockMan reached up and moved the hour hand ahead. The chimes were sharp; James had expected softer bongs.
“Can you take that down for me?”
“Thanks, but you know it’s just not my clock. It’s a beauty. But, I don’t know, it sounds…odd.”
“Good ears, huh? They come in handy. Now, if you don’t mind.” ClockMan swept his hand in front of the clock.
ClockMan led the way down back to the counter. He gave James a wink and opened the clockface to reveal the mysterious works behind. His eyes went back and forth, from the new clock to the piles of innards of the old one. He took his time. If he heard the array of chimes sound yet another hour, he paid no attention. Nor did James, wondering what he was up to.
“Yep, I can do it. Gimme three weeks. Maybe less.”
James apologized for not believing what he was hearing.
“It’s smashed to smithereens. How?”
He reminded James of an earlier talk about the Regulators being well made, exceptionally so. The works, as he put it, are what’s important. The works were what kept the time, make sure the thing chimed when it was meant to. And the works could be put back together.
“But it won’t be the same.”
ClockMan smiled. “The heart of it, the brains, the voice, they’ll be the same. The face you’ve been watching, that’ll be the same. The box? The box is just the wardrobe. You change your clothes?”
“Ever buy two of the same shirts because you like ‘em?”
James nodded again.
“Same clock, different shirt. It’s heart, really all that matters, will be yours.”
James’s nodding this time was slower.
He came back three weeks later. When he entered the shop, the only ticking came from the clock hanging behind the counter. “Turned the others off for you,” said ClockMan. “How’s it sound?” James smiled into the familiar face before him. He didn’t even try to hide the tears when the clock struck nine.
He paid cash as ClockMan had insisted. He paid for the other clock, too, that was, as ClockMan put it, the donor. James asked about its innards. ClockMan smiled. “Gotta guy who has a Regulator some jackass made electric. Time to give it back a heart.”