After signing the divorce papers, I moved into my father’s house, which he’d left to my brother and me. May as well have just been my name in the will for all my brother wanted to do with it. I would have sold it if not for the workshop. But with Lisa keeping our house, her house I should say, the house in which we’d spent years together, I had nowhere else to go. I had to come here. Lucky motherfucking me.
The place was a terrible wreck the night I arrived. The power had been shut off months before. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw the furniture move. The sofa and the puffy recliners, they were alive, vibrating, like I’d caught them shapeshifting in the night.
I shone the light from my phone on the furniture and, squinting, saw the truth: they were covered in moths, hundreds of them, forming a quivering skin as they chewed happily away. A few fluttered drunkenly toward the dim glow of my phone. The big owl eyes on their wings didn’t see me at all.
I tidied up in the ensuing weeks, got everything in working order. No rotten smells wafted from the fridge. The electricity turned back on. The holes in the sofa patched up. I kind of missed the moths.
The workshop gave me the creeps. Generally, I liked being given creeps. Scary movies, ghost stories. This was different. I pretended the workshop didn’t exist, kept its door closed, ignored the alarms ringing out, the soft chorus of ticking that seeped through the house on quiet nights. But I was between jobs. I had all this free time. I started going into the workshop and looking at the clocks when I had nothing to do, when I was looking for inspiration in every room.
My father devoted the final third of his life to the workshop. Broken clocks and watches and timepieces filled the room, lining shelves and walls like game trophies, stacked in piles all over the floor. A hard wooden desk stood alone in the center, surface scattered with an array of tools, a clock with a smashed face, spring and gear guts. Why clocks? Why not snow globes or windup toys or coins? Maybe it was something to do: fix an old clock so it could tell you the time. I thought, Someone for him to talk to, and gulped down a laugh like a half-chewed mouthful of food.
My father died at that desk.
The clocks were beautiful and broken down. All of them, faces warped. Cuckoo calls and alarm bells came at inexplicable intervals: every seventy minutes, three minutes before the hour, every time a Friends rerun aired. The hands ticked and tocked all wrong. Most didn’t have second hands. Those had wilted and fallen off, curled up like dead millipedes or whisped away like lost hair. The few I found fell apart between my fingers when I plucked them off the floor.
I should’ve been writing—the moths, that was a scary image, I could use the moths. Instead I spent days examining the clocks. I didn’t quite know it yet, but I’d decided to repair them all. It wasn’t a decision I made with my head. It was my body, a humming in my hands that urged me to catalogue spare parts, reorganize the room. Begin to finish my father’s work.
When my brother was young, he couldn’t tell time, not the usual way. The hour hand was easy, but he couldn’t decipher what the numbers signified when the minute hand swept over them. So he measured the angles the hands made and told time that way.
I don’t know how he did it, the freak of nature, but he memorized all the ninety-degree times, the forty-five degree times, the times that were straight line scars from one end to the other, and then he formed a mental catalogue of the direction each pointed.
Thirty-degree angle, pointing east, hour over minute hand: 9:43. Fifty-five degree angle, pointing northwest, minute over hour hand: 5:18.
For years, it was the only method that made sense to him. Our father was convinced my brother was a math genius, despite the absence of any real math required for this method. He replaced my brother’s bedtime stories with the Pythagorean theorem, the Monty Hall problem, imaginary numbers.
By that point, my father had long ago stopped reading to me. Told me I was too old, even though my brother was only two years younger. I obsessed over ghost stories, the kind you tell around campfires in the middle of the woods, a flashlight pressed hard enough beneath your chin that it leaves a crescent mark, like you scared the moon so bad it bit you.
I used to think he quit reading to me because the stories scared him. My father had no stomach for horror movies. He got woozy at doctor’s offices, when he felt his own blood thumping beneath the pressure cuff.
Later I realized it wasn’t the stories. It was me who scared him. I was mutating before his eyes, my baby fat sloughing into nothing, my arms and legs marionetting outward. I was bony and angular, too pointy to hold in his lap or carry on his shoulders anymore. My eyes were getting worse, I’d need glasses soon, and the way I squinted gave my face the faint impression of a permanent glare. Once, with rhetorical disbelief, my father asked me When did you grow up? and I looked at him with a face too much like his own and said Nighttime.
I went to the secondhand second hand store. Did you know there was such a thing?
Metal shelves were stacked with boxes and boxes of hand-me-down second hands. The hands looked like anorexic snakes. They quivered when I sifted through them.
I tried to pick the best ones for the broken-down clocks, the stiff tapered pins with solid points. I flicked them against my earlobe to test their ticks. I searched for ones that shone, so bright they needled my eyes.
Remember, they need human affection, the cashier said. Don’t leave them alone for long periods of time.
They were heavier than you’d expect. I couldn’t imagine how many seconds they’d all handed down, how many lifetimes I was taking home in this plastic bag. They cost me nothing—they were free with all the seconds I spent in the store.
Lisa and I, we never had time for each other. She was gone most days, working new cases, dead tired when she came home. I got odd jobs here and there, taking tickets at an independent theater, working at haunted houses and corn mazes in autumn.
Those were all pit stops, I thought, on the way to my true calling: renowned horror novelist. I was writing my first horror novel. Or trying.
Lisa was supportive until one night when, after a rare frenzied few minutes of lovemaking, she asked me to read what I’d written so far. I put on a distinguished novelist voice. Giving you a glimpse behind the curtain could spoil the creative process, I told her.
If nothing else can be said, Lisa knew me. I was a show off. I loved to demonstrate my latest haunted maze scare tactics. She knew immediately. You don’t have anything, do you? No way I could have hidden my life’s work from her. What have you been doing all this time? she asked. Her eyes glittered around the edges. I’d been her companion in long workdays. I’d feigned exhaustion, commiserated with her.
It’s still in the research phase, I insisted. I’ve been watching horror movie marathons for inspiration. That wasn’t untrue, but it wasn’t the whole story either. When I tried to write the novel, to really write it, I’d sit staring at the blank screen, petrified. I’d look up and find that hours had passed. I could almost see the skin on my hands wrinkling, feel my wrists stiffen.
All I could think was that if I wrote anything down, it’d be real. It’d be real and different than I imagined it. That’s how it was with Lisa, too. On our first date, I envisioned the entirety of our life together: wacky dates, honeymoon in Peru, her stomach ballooning with a kid, maybe two. I was so sure I knew how it all would go.
But being with her, marrying her, sleeping with her beside me in bed, it wasn’t anything like that. We went on fun dates—I remember a walking ghost tour—and we even honeymooned in Peru, but it all felt wrong. Every day was just another day.
I affixed the second hands to the clocks, matching up styles and colors, finding the perfect fit for each. The slim plastic hand for the kitschy red kitchen clock. The hand like a fire poker for the iron-wrought grandfather hunched over in the corner. The hand no fatter than my palm’s lifeline for the gold-chained pocket watch.
Some clicked easily into place. Others I had to hammer, to drill and screw, to weld. Then it was a matter of calibrating, of winding, of interlocking toothy gears. Fixing all the crooked tocks. Figuring out what made them tick.
My father began working on clocks when he found his nest empty. My brother, as it turned out, had been pretty good at math after all, but he hated it. After years of pressure, coming home to new word problems beside his dinner, Christmases with only engineering textbooks underneath the tree, he went to art school.
By that point, I was long gone, out of state, racking up credits for a history degree that only represented class periods spent staring into space, unable to assemble a sensible chronology out of all that had ever happened.
Working in my father’s workshop, I thought about my novel. I’d write about a man whose arms were minute and hour hands, and whatever he touched turned to old. I’d commence tomorrow. One thousand words a day. Tomorrow, when all the clocks were finished.
The last time I saw my brother was years ago. He showed up wanting to borrow a suit.
I have a job interview, he said. All my clothes are covered in paint.
In exchange for the suit, which hung loose around his skinny body, he gave me a painting of two ancient men on a fallen-in porch. They were pointing at an underbite of pyramids in the distance. The men were kind of blurry and impressionistic, but the pyramids were sharp, highly detailed. Looking at it gave me a kind of vertigo. It’s us, he said, but I didn’t know if he meant the old men or the pyramids.
We caught up a bit. I told him about the words I wanted to write but couldn’t commit to page, told him about my already-brewing marital problems.
Sometimes you have to make time, he said, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t know if you needed to collect ingredients, stir them together in a pot on the stove, or if time was constructed with hammer and nail out of raw materials, built into something bigger than the sum of its parts.
When Lisa came home, I showed her the painting, the intricate hieroglyphs etched on each pyramid. We should go to Egypt, I said. A second honeymoon. She said, I can’t think about that right now, and went to bed.
I stared at the computer screen and tried to think up something really scary. I could feel handfuls of sand falling between my fingers, and so I wrote that: I could feel handfuls of sand falling between my fingers, but that’s as far as I got.
When it struck one, it struck me.
I was looking at all the second hands I’d stitched and soldered on, now stuttering perfect-circled around those distorted ovals, the squashed rings of clock faces. Each was counting perfect time, every second accounted for, and at one in the ever-loving morning it struck me.
There hadn’t been a single working clock in the whole workshop when I started. My father hadn’t been fixing these clocks at all. He’d been breaking them. Taking them apart. Winding them backwards, trying to squeeze one more second out of all the shriveled days my brother and I had lived under the same roof with him. He’d wanted to make time bend, fold over itself, bring him back so he could spend some hours a different way.
He’d smothered my brother. He’d ignored me. We didn’t call often after we left. The second hands spun around. I thought about calling my brother, calling Lisa. I imagined getting out my monster masks, going to the park and scaring kids. Looking at the synchronized clocks was like watching a train emerging from a tunnel, like staring down the infinite dark of a shotgun barrel. I massaged my arthritic hands. I looked down at the long tangle of my beard, white and brooming across the floor.
I’d already been here a long time.