This story published in the Spring 2016 issue of The Olive Tree Review
The watch’s metallic case will often go unnoticed depending on which angle I'm sitting or lying on the couch (or where my preoccupations lie that day). The case sits baking in the light through the window, warping with the seasons, surrounded by various books, notes, knickknacks, and other various sorts of shelf-worthy essentials (the ashtray from New Mexico, the deck of Civil War playing cards with the opposing faces of Lincoln and Lee, the black and gold coasters from Jamaica that we never use, and the unauthorized biography of Nancy Reagan by Kitty Kelley that I'll never read). But in the midst of all this chaos sits that case collecting dust.
Time is curious thing. A bit overanalyzed I suppose. A bit broad. It doesn't take much of a stretch to see in it a metaphor for death. There's any number of clichés; the final countdown, the clock is winding down, time stands still, punching the clock, a time to remember, better luck next time, down-time, hard-time, helluva time, time to make the donuts, and it's time to shove off. Time is something that cannot truly be grasped; it’s an abstract notion - an epic struggle between holding on and letting go. To which, one can do neither. Time has no master. The "keeper," a fairy tale even too grim for the Grimms.
My most recent rediscovery of the case was on a mission to find the Garcia Marquez memoir my mother gave me for my birthday nine years ago. I grab the case and inspecting it, see the imprint in the dust from the last time I grabbed it. I open it. I touch the watch inside.
The watch is a curious thing. In fact it's becoming something of a curiosity. One day it'll be on display in a jar next to the world’s longest fingernails at Ripley’s Believe it or Not. Essentially obsolete thanks to the cellular phone, the watch is now solely a status symbol. The young wear them to show their irony, the old wear them to show their stubbornness to change, the poor wear them to seem rich, and the rich wear them to, well, seem more rich.
It seems to me no coincidence that the watch not only embodies time, but also embodies, our bodies: It has two hands, a face, a series of inner workings which most of us don't understand (but we trust that there's probably some joints, valves, and circuitry somewhere in there), a back, and a band—Which is either, like us, metallic cold and constantly pinching, or tanned, weathered and falling apart. I suppose when we get a little closer to figuring stuff out, we'll be in that jar at Ripley’s too.
The watch stands still at three hours, thirty-one minutes, and twenty-two seconds. Its hand underneath its scuffed glass are bright and new; taking for granted all the tarnish they've been able to avoid, which we've gotten the privilege to endure. The cheap metal encasing the glass and guts has begun to erode. A steady build up of gunk seems to glue its dials in place. And the birds at twelve, three, six, and nine are staring back at me in silence.
In retrospect I'm not sure if my grandfather was really a bird lover or just needed something to do and talk about with relatives. I know he had a stack of books on various species, but I never saw him open them. There was a bird-feeder in his back-yard, and every Christmas I'd give him a twenty-pound bag of bird-seed (well I should say I signed the small card taped to the ribbon around the bag - To: grandpa / From: love, hans), but I never saw him use it. There must have been mountains of seed down in that basement. He had a membership card to the Audubon Society, but what does “membership” really mean anyway (I've been a proud member of the National Geographic Society for years now)? And finally he had this watch. The National Audubon Society Singing Bird Watch™ (trademarked of course). It was another Christmas or Birthday gift, and it would sing-croak-squawk-chirp every third hour, for the rest of his life. His face would grimace every time it went off. It wouldn't take a microexpressionist to interpret how he felt. I wonder if he only wore it when we would visit as not to offend. He would do something similar as his body was being overrun by the cancer that would kill him. Holding in the pain as not to offend. As not to frighten. He wouldn't dare put his bother of death on his family. It's a midwestern thing I suppose.
The watchband is in tatters now. It's notches too torn and worn to hold the clasp around my wrist. To move it is to see little slivers of synthetic leather flake off and settle into the bottom of that metallic case. I inspect all of the shavings that have accumulated over the years. It's a fine display of the decay that has been going on out of sight, for years. I go to open up the back and remember that I've opened it before. I've been through all of this before. I was going to restore this beautiful-baby back! Back to brand-new! I went out and got a shiny new band, tan and sturdy and made of real leather this time. And I found out exactly what batteries it needed, forty-eight by two-point-fifteen millimeter, number three-forty-eight at twelve-milli-Ampere-hour (I got a two pack even).
My grandfather was dead in less than month after his diagnosis. He smoked two packs of unfiltered Pall Malls a day since the depression, and I guess that kind of accumulated like the slow winding of a Jack in the Box. Then Surprise! Blam! Life's Joke! I was there when the Lutheran pastor came to say his final prayers over him: my grandfather lay with a more exaggerated grimace than his Christmas gift grimace. Gritting his teeth while his tears trickled down his exhausted face, and soaked deep into his pillow. Puffs of muffled defiance were all he could muster in the end.
I found his bird-watch as I was cleaning out his drawers at the assisted living facility he died in. It was in with his socks and underwear marked with his initials - RH. My mother saw it in my hand and said, "Oh, he would have wanted you to have that." That’s something people say to be polite. So I reciprocated the gesture and took it home.
I'm looking for the new batteries and band that are now nowhere to be found. Did I even buy them? Was it all just a grand-plan-memory? I stop looking after a while and return to my grandfather’s watch. I rub its face. I fold its band back. I place it in its cheap metallic case and return its lid. I place it back in its point-of-view place on its dusty chaotic shelf. Knowing full well that the hands still stand still at three hours, thirty-one minutes, and twenty-two seconds, and the birds still won’t sing.