‘Clock’ was one of the first words my daughter learned as a child. She was pointing to the gold watch circling my wrist when she first said it. Clock, she said, pointing with her entire hand, and her father corrected her, said ‘watch’ and my daughter looked at her father’s face, of course, she watched, but when she turned back to that gold band on my, her mother’s, arm, clock she said again, and I thought yes.

    Clock is a word, like stone and rock, that I like the sound of. Clock. The hard k at the beginning and the end, with ‘law’ in the middle, or that same hard sound at the beginning with ‘lock’ at the end. Lock. Of hair. The door. Lock it now.

    It makes sense that clock would be her first word. There was a clock in every classroom in every school, and her father, my husband, was the one in charge of all the hands. Because he wanted the sign on his truck to read ‘And Son or Daughter’ he took our daughter with him from school to school before she was old enough to attend and even after, during that late afternoon childhood of golden time when her classmates went home to their snacks and caregivers or their empty latchkey houses.

    One child, our daughter, in the center of our lives and the two of us moving around her. I knew where my child was and she knew where to find me.

    In the house, with its ticking clocks.


Here’s how it was at first, as our daughter was schooled in timekeeping. The floors were wood, the walls were plaster, the children particularly cruel as though by re-setting clocks my husband was stealing minutes from their afternoon play. There was just one room in most schools when my husband’s father was himself young, but when schools became honeycombed with rooms, and the factories were noisy and large and beyond the reach of a bell or a boss or teacher with a watch who told the time, someone had to be the keeper of order and time had centuries ago been chosen as the ordering abstraction and clocks the symbols of that abstraction.

    What else could it have been, you might ask, and I suppose most of my answers would be temporal, though more elastic. Nothing to do with numbers, certainly. Perhaps colors of daylight. Blue-grey hour, blue-red hour, yellow-green hour, red-orange hour fading into peach hour into purplish hour into a stretch of ebony, or if you live in a city into orange gas-flame hour in an earlier century, replaced by reddish mercury vapor hour as the years flew by the windows.

    And then of course the interminable grey of winter hours, the hours that so oppress me now: gauze grey, winding sheet grey, the grey of unoxygenated skin, and so on.

    Or perhaps the days could have been ordered by things done or by things made and our lives would have turned out differently. No clocks to synchronize, no time to keep. All schoolchildren, when they’d finished reading one book, would go outside for recess and play until they were tired, and that could be any time between sunrise and sunset or multiple sunrises or sunsets. The same with doctors and surgeries, dollmakers and dolls.

    But it was time as measured in something like heartbeats that was the ordering principle, and my husband and earlier his father was the keeper of those beats, and one day my daughter would be, my husband thought, the keeper of those beats as well.


My husband worked on both the masters and the slaves in all the schools and businesses. That’s the official terminology, passed down through years. The master clock was in the principal or boss’s office and the slave clocks were attached by an elaborate electrical relay so as the day unwound its spring, the master would continue its important work and the slaves would follow. It was my husband’s job to tend to the master, to see as well that the insides of the slave clocks were oiled and accurate, to move or bend the fragile hands of master or slave when necessary, to keep the faces free of fingerprints, to replace the glass if cracked, to polish the copper rings, to repair the wires between the clocks and as well, as well: to charm and sometimes to caress the occasional female teacher whose own internal clocks kept regular time in the gush then slow drip of blood.

    Oh yes, I knew about them.


There are several ways of telling time at night. One is by sound: by springs unfurling like petals of flowers or weights or pendulums, and they all, or almost all, involve a hammer and a string or bell.

    The other is by artificial light. For instance, there is incandescence, hot light, where you turn on a lamp and you look at your clock and see what time it is.

    Or you have digital numbers that keep the time for you, and they are hot as well, requiring electricity and so on.

    And then there is luminescence.

    When something is luminous it’s because it’s tired.

    When something is luminous it’s because some energy has caused an electron to jump out of its ground situation into a higher or excited state but the electron prefers the ground situation and when it falls, it gives up energy in the form of light, like the trailing of a firework into smoke.

    There is in fact luminescence in nature, in fireflies for instance, and there is photoluminescence in things that absorb light, like oyster shells, and there is even radioluminescence in things that are radioactive like radium or tritium.

    Photoluminescence works just a few hours past nighttime. It fades.

    Radium doesn’t fade within a human’s measurable time and so it was slathered on the hands of watches until it began to kill and maim the women who made the hands.  I’m sure you know this.

    Tritium is inside your drugstore watch, if you’re like me, the one you reach for by your bedside when the electricity has gone out and the digital numbers have lost all sense. It too is radioactive, but none of it leeches out through the glass face and into the bones of your wrist, I swear it.


There were times when the watch around my wrist felt like a shackle to me. I was in my house, my daughter upstairs sleeping. I could not leave because she was very young and she was sleeping. She was upstairs sleeping and my husband was not home and there were times I wouldn’t have minded if you told me that the tritium was in fact working its way into my bones, causing a lingering illness that would allow me to be a good though fragile mother while he watched and regretted the time he’d spent away from me.

    I never wanted my daughter to feel this way. I wanted her to have a different sort of fierceness when in love. I wanted her to have the upper hand, to see things in their proper context, to have that long view.


In the early days of my marriage and early motherhood I read, dutiful wife, those things I thought would keep my husband interested in me. I would say and whisper the words while we had sex: Ingraham, Ithaca, Emperor, Kieninger, regulator. Spring, hand, face.

    My husband belonged to unions and centuries old fraternal organizations that met at certain times and with some regularity and that offered the excuse for him to meet his mistresses for longer stretching time, in the murky dark of a teacher’s lounge at night, after he had brought our daughter home. Sometimes I thought he used our daughter as a magnetic device, drawing women to him. But not one of them could have known as much as I did about the inner workings of his mind or of his life.

    Still. He and his women knew the coming and going of the janitorial staff and either he or the woman had a key to every lock, and they were probably, as I think of it, lonely women, and I think of all these women as tied together by that same electrical relay system as the clocks, my husband working on them with the same patience. The placing of the hands on the women’s bodies, the slick faces in the moonlight. He was as faithless to them as he was to me.

    Though he was good, I have to say, at timing: where to touch and with what pressure and how long, the slow moving of the hands around the face. He was so very good at sex. He would talk and teach his lovers to talk back to, or along with, him. A simultaneous murmur or hum of language, of Kant and count and can’t and cunt and so forth. A tic. So of course there would be jealous women, not jealous of me of course, poor stupid wife, but jealous of one other.

    My husband never raised his voice to me and so, we thought, our daughter would be unaffected by our failing marriage. My husband believed, or so I believe, that he was a good man who simply lived two lives within one span of time. His eyes were extraordinarily beautiful. He was a narcissist with gifts to give. If a woman he was with would cry because she was ashamed but still said yes to him, he wouldn’t notice it or perhaps he wouldn’t care. I know this because I’ve been that woman, or was before we were married. I knew, I suppose, what I was getting in to but couldn’t really imagine it.


There’s a clock on the wall in my kitchen. The time it shows is different from the time on the microwave which is different from the time on the coffeemaker which is different from my wristwatch and all of them are different from the time on the cellphone. I attend to those slight differences. Some days I try to coordinate the times but when I’ve got two of them saying the same thing a second will flip over on one of them like it’s risen up through the watery goo of a Magic 8 Ball.

    It all takes my mind off my daughter, who consumes me. On days she is afraid her boyfriend might leave her, she thinks about driving her car into a tree. She told me this. How could she tell me this? She told me this and she can’t untell me.

    When she was born I didn’t plan for this contingency, the contingency where she wanted to drive into a tree because her boyfriend might break up with her. I couldn’t think beyond the skin, the lashes, the perfect nails, fat chubby feet. The same with her first year and her second and third and fourth and so on until nineteen, where she rests. The birthdays come and go and she is still that baby to me.

    And so I think: check the clock, set the clock, reset the clock, or clock someone as in to hit him. Or clock in as to start work Clock clock clock, the word running in circles in my head.





Susan Neville is the author of four works of creative nonfiction: Indiana Winter; Fabrication: Essays on Making Things and Making Meaning; Twilight in Arcadia; and Iconography: A Writer's Meditation. Her prize-winning collections of short fiction include In the House of Blue Lights, winner of the Richard Sullivan prize, and Invention of Flight, winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. She lives in Indianapolis with her husband and two children and teaches writing at Butler University and in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Her new book, Sailing the Inland Sea, is published by Quarry Books, a new imprint of Indiana University Press.




Back to Freight Stories No. 3

 

Susan Neville

Clock