A Matter of Time
I collect clocks. Telechron Clocks to be precise. Accidentally so. I’ve been told it’s an odd hobby for a young man, but I had a unique reason for my hobby. I admit that, while I had always had an affinity for timepieces, I had never heard of Telechron until one fine spring day in my senior year of high school. Like most teenagers, weekends were something I looked forward to. I loved the free time a weekend represented, doing whatever I chose until late Sunday night when I would sit down and do my homework well into the night. If it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would get done. I have often wondered if there weren’t a company somewhere called the Eleventh Hour specializing in last minute works.
Most Saturdays, I would walk the few blocks to the bus stop and take it downtown. Our old industrial city is an amalgam of trendy antique shops and run down buildings. Coffee shops with their Federal Style furniture from the 1920’s selling for hundreds if not thousands of dollars sit only blocks away from, ironically, a ruined building from the 1920’s — possibly the same building the furniture had come from in the first place.
My destination was Reale’s Deals, what some might call a junk store. Mr. Reale, whose name was actually pronounced Ree-Al-EE, bought from estate sales and auctions, resulting in the huge amount of oddities to be found on his premises. Among the oddities were always items of beauty, unpolished perhaps and in need of some type of care of other, but the interesting thing about the shop was that you never knew what you’d find. It was a wonderful amalgam, a singularly vibrant plethora of this and that.
I went every week partially for this reason, but in comparison to my real reason, it was indeed a distant second. The main reason to go to Reale’s Deals was the owner's son, Joshua. Not tall, and not exceedingly muscular, he still cut a fine form from moving all the new odds and ends that permeated his working environment. Joshua was something of an oddity himself, in that he was one of the few openly gay students at Cresswood High School and, as such, I found him fascinating.
While it occurred to me many times that interacting with him on a personal level should have been easy, it was anything but. As the schools designated literary geek I only found comfort in the written word or in debate club. Outside of that, I rarely spoke to anyone. It only took so many times of my extensive vocabulary killing an active conversation with confused looks and hidden giggles before I got the message.
All in all, it worked out just fine except in this one category – I was lonely. Don’t feel bad for me; it was a self-imposed isolation. Considering my vocabulary and my sexual preference, I didn’t have a wide range of things to communicate to my classmates at any rate. Observing my classmates was another matter entirely, however.
I spent a great deal of time watching other people, they can be fascinating to observe. While not immune to many of the emotions that strike my classmates, I tend to slide by unobserved. I run, not because I enjoy running or need to stay in shape for sports, but as a means to escape those that might seek to do me harm. A teenage ego, when bruised, has even less rationality than normal. But back to my observations.
Even before Joshua ‘came out,’ I had noticed him with particular interest, not so much for his status as the only out male, but more for how he carried it. He never shied away from being who he was, but he didn’t go out of his way to identify himself either, which gave him a curiously unquantifiable facet to who he was. As I had mentioned, he wasn’t tall, nor was he what some would call built. His pale skin was in sharp contrast to exceedingly dark hair, most times styled in a rakish fashion. His bright green eyes further set him apart from the various and sundry cookie cutter student body. Joshua didn’t fit the accepted parameters of a homosexual anymore than I fit the description of an anteater. Though small, he proved suitably scrappy when called to be so — there were more than a few would be harassers who got more than they bargained for.
Despite the occasional bruise or black eye, he was reasonably well regarded and eventually his sexuality was almost a non-issue. For myself, it made him more desirable and, oddly, even more out of reach than I had ever considered before. If anyone is, to my eye, attractive they are more than likely a heterosexual, which is a common lament in the gay community, I have read. The fact that I spoke the way I did only served to pain me more when I realized if I could just speak to him I might have had an opportunity to take my first steps down the path to a relationship, or lacking that, ascertain if he was as interested in me as I was in him. If nothing else, I do learn and remember my lessons, and so I did not speak, but instead watched in pained silence.
And so it came to pass that bright spring Saturday at the close of my senior year that my clock hobby began, as I said, quite by accident. I walked into the yard of Reale’s Deals and began to browse, keeping a sharp eye out for Joshua laboring amongst the ruins. I spotted him and, quickly as I was capable of, took an immediate interest in a wooden railing that was near me. Caressing the carved wood, probably from the balcony of some older building that was coming down or being ruined in a modern, remodeled sense, I cleverly observed Joshua toting items from a box truck and carrying it to particular areas around the yard.
I wandered toward the general area where Joshua was unloading the truck , near Joshua as was my wont. As I did so, I alternated between stealing glances and observing the flotsam. Not very long afterward, Joshua began working inside one of the two main buildings on the property. Some of the items didn’t do well exposed to the elements and so were corralled inside. Cleverly, I thought, I walked into the opposite building and did my very best to wait a reasonable amount of time before heading to Joshua's building.
I’m not sure how long I managed, but finally, I could take it no more and I wandered with purpose into the other building into which he had gone. I say had because he was nowhere in evidence. I walked slowly around looking for him, but also trying to spot something I could easily claim to have been looking at. Subterfuge was paramount in my weekly observations. I’m not sure exactly what I’d do if I were caught looking. Possibly perform my very best imitation of a deer that has a car bearing down on it. Or a freight train.
“Back again, huh? You don’t buy much, but you never seem to get tired of looking.”
I jumped at the sound of Joshua’s voice, and found him behind me coming from a side door which, until a moment ago, I could have sworn led nowhere. Doors were in abundance on the yard, and one never knew which were real and which were for sale. Come to think of it, they were probably all for sale.
“No.” I willed my expansive vocabulary into submission, grinding out a short answer that brooked no tolerance for speaking too much. The less said, the less a chance to give anything away. Also, he made me slightly nervous.
He paused to think about my reply before he answered. “Took me a moment to think of which part you were responding to.”
He smiled at me, making me uneasy. His smile made me think he knew why I was here. He grasped the sides of another door, getting his hands set to lift it, and as he did so he turned to look at me. “I’ve been wondering lately though, what is it exactly you look for here? You know I’ve seen you every Saturday for the last two or three months and you almost never buy anything so it leads me to wonder…what are you looking for here?”
Here it was, the moment of truth; I could come out to him in eloquent fashion and he would see that I was simply a shy intellectual who was waiting for his gentle touch to coax me into a loving relationship. I looked into his limpid emerald pools and felt my willpower brimming. Today was the day!
Except that my hands had minds of their own and reached past him – oh so near to touching him – and instead latched upon a small wooden clock with a cracked cord and a scarred finish.
He seemed surprised, but relinquished his hold on the door and peered at my new treasure. “Old clocks are your thing, eh?” He reached out and took the clock from me, examining it. “Says General Electric on the face and the sticker on the bottom. You collect these?”
I nodded, my vaunted vocabulary at a loss for simple conversation. Though perhaps, considering my past excursions into the world of small talk, perhaps it was doing me a favor. The irony was not lost on me, however; possibly my biggest reason to date to communicate with another person and I was tongue tied.
“These can be worth money, you know. They have Telechron movements in them. Have a guy comes down once a month and looks to see if we took any in.”
I glanced at the shabby little clock, studied it as his fingers laced about its wooden frame. Suddenly, more than anything, I wanted that clock. I wanted it because he was lifting it up, examining it, and smiling as he did.
“I like these myself, you know, but I can’t do anything with all these dings and the bad cord.” He looked at me, the smallest smile playing on either end of his lips. “Do you fix these up?”
“Yes.” I replied reflexively. I suppose I should confess that, at that particular time, I knew nothing of clocks or refinishing wood products. That did not seem to matter one iota at the time.
“Well then, I suppose you should take this one. But do me a favor, would you? I’ll give you the clock if you help me move some doors we just got in.” He grinned, a look I found most endearing on his face. He gently handed the clock back to me as his eyes met mine. “And you have to let me see it when you’re done with it, huh?”
“Of course.” I would have agreed to anything to extend this tiny conversation.
“Yes…of course. Well, come on then.”
We worked, and I listened to him talk. The more he talked, the happier I was to simply listen. He expounded on his desire to have a weekend off, he told me about his parents and how he wished he’d had siblings, and enquired if I had any of my own. He continued on, and I continued to help him long after the doors were arranged. For the first time I felt normal, as he didn’t seem to mind that I wasn’t speaking more than a few words. Unbelievably, I felt comfortable — to a degree.
And so, at the end of the day I had a new clock and a new hobby. I couldn’t possibly let him down. I just had to get the clock in working order. Upon arriving at home I took the clock straight to my room and examined it. I found a website dealing in Horology and learned what the various general parts were called and then — pay-dirt! — a site that had all sorts of information about the clock company and the ways to fix them!
Well, I won’t bore you with all the details of trying to fix the clock. Suffice to say that if the power cord appears to be frayed, do not plug it in, simply replace it. Trust me on this.
Chemical gloves donned, steel wool in hand, and antique furniture stripper nearby, refinishing the small clock proved to be a real chore. The muscles in my hands ached with the efforts of small repetitive motions.
Of course, I realize now that this clock was child’s play compared to others with more complex problems I would work on later. But in two weeks time, I had a timepiece to be proud of. On the third Saturday, a week before graduation, I boarded the bus and took the small clock down for Joshua to inspect. I was nervous, more nervous than my first debate. I entered the yard and made my way to the unloading area to find the truck not there, nor was Joshua. I stood dumbfounded. The idea that he would not be here had not even entered my mind. I stood still, unsure of what my next move should be. As I waited, footsteps approached and I eagerly turned toward the sound. I was once more disappointed to find Mr. Reale approaching.
“Ho, Eddie, how goes it? Haven’t seen you for a few weeks now.”
“Good afternoon Mr. Reale. I’ve been working on this clock.” I removed a small bundle from my backpack and unwrapped it carefully to show Joshua’s father.
“Well, that’s a fine job!” He took the clock from me carefully, examining it from all sides. “Does it work?”
“Yes sir, it does, I put a new power cord on it and oiled the prescribed areas where it makes contact with other parts. I have cleaned the crystal and polished the bezel. I also used an antique stripper to remove the damaged finish, and then cleaned it with mineral spirits. Then I placed a coating of Tung oil on the wood before putting the movement back inside.”
“Well, Eddie, you did a fantastic job on this old clock, I have to tell you, son. I’m really impressed! Is this the clock Josh gave to you?”
“Yes sir. I hope he didn’t get into any trouble for doing that.”
“Oh, no. He said you helped him move all the doors we had just gotten. I was on my back with a nasty flu so I couldn’t help him. Small price to pay trust me.” He handed my clock back to me and smiled.
I smiled back, but had no idea what to say next.
“Well, too bad Joshua isn’t here right now. He wanted to see how the clock came out. He thinks it’s funny that the name of this clock is ‘The Gay Hour’, silly kid.”
I wracked my brain trying to figure out what to do next.
“Something the matter?”
“I was supposed to show him, I don’t really want to take it back home until he’s seen it,” I confessed.
“Hmm, well that is a bit of a dilly there. He won’t be back till tomorrow. It’s his mom’s weekend with him you see.” He rubbed his chin for a moment before smiling broadly at me. “How about this? You leave this little clock here and I have another one you can take with you. You can work on it and bring that one next time!”
And so I fell into a routine, sometimes paying for the clocks I took home to fix, and other times repairing and returning it to the Reale’s for credit towards a future clock. As college started for myself and Joshua we had the clocks to talk about. At last, something I could contribute to the conversation! He’d tell me of the places he’d go at night, of the boyfriends he’d have and break up with. His relationships never seemed to last. I’d help him in the yard on occasion and just listen to him talk.
All that changed one day, and it was a clock that did it, after a fashion. Joshua waved to me in excitement as I approached one Saturday, grabbing my arm and pulling me towards one of the buildings.
“Look what came in Eddie! Just wait till you see it! It’ll be so beautiful when you fix it up!”
I was intoxicated on his exuberance, the smile he beamed at me, and the glint in his emerald eyes. At last, he pointed to the source of his excitement. It was an old art deco clock, one that he and I had admired in a book once but never thought to see. It was about six inches tall with beveled edges to the left and right. The edges were striped with two different types of wood, one being rippled walnut and the other white holly, just as the book had told us. There were paint splatters on its top, the crystal was caked with dust and grime, the bezel had lost its coating in several places allowing the exposed brass to tarnish. The power cord was missing, but the clock was still a beauty. This was the elusive ‘Congress.’ Less than two thousand of them were built, all in the last few years of the 1930’s.
“You have to go start it right away!” Joshua beamed at me.
I stood and stared at him, mesmerized.
I remained silent.
I seemed to be waking from a too sweet dream, and tried desperately to cling to the warm emotions Joshua inspired in me. I felt his hand on my arm, gently shaking me and I at last returned to the present.
“Sorry, I was woolgathering.”
“You use the funniest words. I swear you have the biggest vocabulary of anyone I know.”
I smiled shyly and gingerly took the clock from his hands. After wrapping it in soft cloth and placing it in my back-pack, it was time to go home. The bus ride home was always a sad experience for me, as the glow I felt after spending time with Joshua slowly faded. I felt the clock through its swaddling and smiled at his joy. The Congress was one of our favorite clocks.
I climbed the stairs to my bedroom and sat my bundle gently on my work table. After showering and changing, I sat at the table to give the Congress a closer inspection. I sat still and absorbed it as I recalled Joshua’s joy that afternoon. I lined up my cans of chemicals on the window sill and returned to the table. Turning the clock to face away from me, I placed my needle nose vice-grips with cloth covering the teeth on the time set shaft and spun the knob attached to it clockwise to loosen it. Once removed, I placed the clock face down on a folded tee shirt so as not to damage the crystal and removed the three spring-loaded screws that secured the face and movement in the body of the clock. I slowly worked the innards out of the hollow wooden case, being especially mindful of the crystal as its glass was very thin. The gears had a coating of dust, and the power cord had been cut from outside the clock, its entrails dangling from the coil.
I turned to examine the wooden case, noting the physical defects that would largely disappear when the damaged varnish was removed, and discovered a small envelope inside the clock. Curious, I reached in and removed my find. It was old, spotted with foxing and crumbling with age. Painstakingly, I pried open the flap of the envelope and slid out its brittle contents. It was a sheet of folded, yellowed notebook paper.
I carefully unfolded the aged paper and looked inside. As I did, two small photographs fell into my lap. I set aside the sheet of paper and picked up the photos. They were both of young men in service uniforms. The first bore the inscription ‘Theodore Rathstein, 1943’. The second read ‘Wallace Horton, 1944’.
I returned to the paper to find a letter written in strong, steady handwriting.
My dearest Theodore, taken from me in the prime of your life. I go now in your footsteps and hope to be as brave as you were. For so long we danced so closely, but never together and so I shall tell you here, on this page, and hope that your soul may read these words and be comforted. I have loved you with all my meager heart may muster, and I go to war knowing I shall never love another such as you. I wish now more than ever to have told you, to not have let you go to the killing fields without the knowledge deep in your breast of my devotion. I was weak, my love, and in your absence I have tried to be strong but in the end, without you, I am incomplete. So I come to join you and in the ruined landscape of war my soul and yours shall dance in peace on those foreign fields, a never ending twining of one to another.
I stared at the letter, the plaintive cry across time for a love unfulfilled on the mortal plane. I am not a superstitious man, but suddenly I did feel as though fate were pressing on me, weighing in its desire for history to not allow another unrequited love. A quick glance at my watch and I had my jacket in hand, making for the sidewalk and the last bus of the night heading downtown.
It was well past dark now, only the starlight sprinkled on the dark sky with the occasional streetlamp accompanied me as I headed back to the yard. The bus seemed to take interminably long, almost as if the night had gained strength and substance enough to slow the progress of a physical being and the bus had to struggle through the darkness, but the darkened shops of downtown finally appeared, the century old buildings looming in the night sky.
The flood lights around the Reale's Deals sign were off. Only the dim lights hidden behind curtains illuminated the porch of the home Joshua and his father lived in next door to the yard. I approached the door purposefully and knocked. There was some movement behind the curtains, the footrest of a recliner being released, and footsteps to the door.
“I’ll grab it dad, I’m on my way out anyway,” said Joshua’s muffled voice from behind the door. Then the door opened, and the muted light grew stronger as it defined my form.
Joshua smiled at me uncertainly. “Eddie? Is everything all right?”
“Joshua, I wish to speak with you, please. Do you have time?”
“Yeah, sure.” He closed the door behind himself and walked with me to the edge of his porch. “I’m only going to the bar anyway. I can do that every weekend that they have eighteen and over night. How often does Eddie Corinth stop by after business hours?” he grinned and I felt myself relax, but just by a fraction.
“I have something to say.” I frowned at myself. While I had spoken the literal truth, it was far more important than the words conveyed. All the comfort I had developed in speaking to Joshua seemed to have evaporated and left me stiff, once more at a loss for words.
“Yes, I guess you must.” He smirked at me. The streetlight flickered, the light flashing in his eyes. His face floated as his dark hair became one with the surrounding night, save for a small halo on the crown of his head. The angelic appearance it lent him was amusing, considering some of the language that frequented his tongue and some of his nocturnal adventures. Angelic indeed. He leaned his shoulder against the frame of the screen door, said door having long departed. He spoke so low, so softly that one might have thought he were afraid to speak, afraid to voice the conversation. “You going to tell me what it is you have to say, Eddie?”
I looked at him and for the first time saw that he looked tired, but, hidden in the play of shadow and light across his face, interested, possibly hopeful if I can be allowed to indulge in that idea. I almost felt as if he knew what I wanted to say and was hoping that I was now going to follow through.
“Joshua Justin Reale, I have wished to speak to you about something for a very long time, but could never find the words. No combination could ever seem to satisfy me to express the complexity of my feeling, the subtle ways you have entwined with my very being, and so,” I hesitated, grasped for breath and willed myself to courage under his now penetrating stare. “I am going to speak the words of another. His name was Wallace and he has taught me the error of my ways and the profound sadness that comes with never having uttered the love that dare not speak its name.
“You have left me, for years, tongue tied and struck dumb. I have very little to offer you, except all the love my meager heart can muster, but I promise you it shall be yours always.” I looked down, unable to meet his gaze, afraid of being lost in those eyes and never returning.
Joshua sat still for a moment before gliding slowly closer, gravel crunching under his shoes to mark his progress. With one hand, he reached for mine, and with his other he lifted my chin.
“What took you so long, Eddie?” And he kissed me.
I know now that there are no words to describe the sweet rapture of love returned, of patience paying off and fear being vanquished.
As he broke the kiss and gazed into my eyes, he repeated his question. “What took you so long?”
Thinking of our Congress sitting on my desk, I smiled at him and said, “It was only a matter of time.”