Clock Watcher

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

They call her the Unturnable, because she will not change her mind. Once someone has reached the end of their allotted thread, she whisks in to snip it.

They call her the Inevitable One. The Inflexible.

Rarely do they use her name: Atropos.

Most times, the cut is a gentle one, and she catches her charge as their weight is untethered from the cable holding them to life. Sometimes, she misses the catch, and there is a metaphysical thud as though a weary soul has collapsed to a less-than-ethereal floor.

People fear her, but her calling is a necessary one.

Time and technology have changed how she works, over the years, decades, centuries, and epochs. Her sisters have changed their methods as well.

Clotho was so excited to be able to use a 3-D printer to create lives, rather than merely spinning them. And Lachesis was immediately taken with any number of Rube Goldberg-esque measuring devices involving chutes and troughs and scoops and bins and rolling parts that bounce and glide  – the middle sister always had been a bit of a tinkerer.

And as for Atropos, herself? Somewhat ironically, the Unturnable had become enamored with the turning hands of clocks. A clock for each of her charges, each of her targets, every living soul, with the correct allotment (as proscribed by Lachesis and created by Clotho) pre-programmed into the perfect number of ticks and tocks or bleeps or blinks (some of the clocks were digital).

They didn’t chime hours, these clocks, but showed how a thread would be snipped. The Shears were merely a symbol now – there were so many other Ways in the world.  Look at that one, it’s got lots of time left before the hours wind down to Doesn’t Wake Up, or that one over there, just a few minutes left before it chimes Old Age.

But then there are the more ominous clocks, the ones with darker Ways. Those are the lives that are tortured and broken. Some are sad, some are angry, some have been harmed, some wish to cause harm. Some wish to take other lives with them when they go, some wish only for their own endings.

And Atropos is the Clock Watcher who sees them all.

Tick, tock, it’s half an hour ’til Poison.

Tick, tock, it’s a quarter to Gun.

They call her the Unturnable, but some clocks, she wishes she could turn back.

Wind and Water

0711 - The Wave

He’d been reluctant to bring her to the farm. The prairie was so far from the ocean she loved and confining her to a landlocked life seemed somehow cruel.

The night before they left California, she took him to Half Moon Bay. She stripped off her clothes and while he watched, she stepped into the freezing Pacific.

He was half-convinced she’d be eaten by a shark – a surfer had been attacked just a few days before.

He was worried the undertow would claim her, and their marriage would be over before it had really begun.

But after fifteen minutes she’d come walking back out of the frothy, foamy waves, her skin glowing in the light of the full moon. He’d tried to wrap her in the thick towel they’d brought, but she’d demurred.

“Hold this, please?” she requested, drawing a blue glass bottle from her beach bag.

He did, and she squeezed the saltwater from her dark hair into the waiting vessel.

Then she’d wrapped the towel around them both and pushed him onto the scratchy, wool blanket she’d inherited from her grandfather. “He was a sea captain,” she’d told him once. “He spoke the language of the wind and the waves.”

But in that moment, the only wind was a balmy one blowing across the beach, and the only waves he cared about weren’t the ones crashing a few yards away, but the ones he was riding as she rode him.

* * *

She’d adapted to prairie life more easily than he’d expected. She had a green thumb and her tomatoes won raves at the county fair. So did her strawberry-rhubarb pies. “I never knew,” she told him, “what they meant when they talked about ‘pie plant’ in the Little House books until I came here. To think it was only ever rhubarb!”

At night they’d light citronella candles and sit on the porch and watch the stars wheel around in the sky. Well, she’d watch the stars. He’d watch the wind as it ruffled her hair and her skirts.

The wind was a constant presence on the prairie. He’d warned her about it, told her that in the old days, before electrical hum and technology drowned the sound and provided distractions, people literally went mad from the never-ceasing wind.

But she’d just laughed and teased the nape of his neck. “I like the wind,” she said. “If I close my eyes, it sounds like the ocean.”

* * *

For the most part, their life was happy, but sometimes, he caught her staring at her blue bottle of ocean water, and he knew that a part of her was still in California. He might be her husband, but the ocean was her lover, and always would be.

He asked if she wanted to move back, and she refused.

“This is our home,” she said. “I like it here.”

So, they got a dog, and they added a room for her to write in and a room for him to build model trains in and a room they might, one day, give over to a child.

The day the digital stick blinked PREGNANT, he came home to strawberry-rhubarb pie and homemade black bean chili and cornbread with fresh honey butter, and they went to the soft grass  in the back yard and made love under the stars with the warm wind washing over them, and the stars smiling down.

The day she started cramping and bleeding, the day they knew that room would never be a child’s room, the wind had never been so fierce. He begged and pleaded with her to let him take her to the emergency room, but she’d seen the tiny fetal mass go down the toilet… a lima bean and a splash of blood and said there was nothing emergent about it.

She clutched her blue bottle and wept, and he wrapped himself around her, and wept as well.

* * *

He heard the shatter of glass and went to check on her, expecting that she’d dropped a glass in the middle of the night (she never would turn the lights on when she went to get water). But it wasn’t a glass.

She was standing on the front porch with the door wide open, and the fragments of her blue bottle at her feet.

He heard a rushing sound, but  it wasn’t the wind he was accustomed to.

Rather, it was a wall of water – a giant wave – rushing toward them.

“I would have taken you back to the sea,” he told her.”

“I know,” she said. “But it’s too late. The sea is coming to take me back to it.”

 

Trouble Bass

0705 - Trouble BassFor years, the house had been rumored to be haunted. It was the one that always seemed neglected. It wasn’t tall or imposing – just a post-war bungalow, like half the houses in the neighborhood, but there was something off about it. The grass was always a touch too long, the shingles too shabby, the windows… when you walked by at dusk or after, it was as if there was something watching from behind them.

Kids dared each other to climb the porch steps and knock on the door on Halloween. The light was always on, its bare bulb illuminating the peeling paint of the screen door and the rusty hinge that kept it mostly shut.

But no one ever took the challenge.

Still, if a soul was brave enough to slow their steps of an evening, they’d have heard sounds from within the old house that might have changed their minds. For after dark, there were warm lights behind those watching windows, and if the wind was just right, a person who paid attention could catch the sound of old jazz – acoustic jazz – seeping out from the cracks in the floorboards and the gaps in the siding.

The bassline was always most prominent.

When Sherry and her family moved into the house next door, that bass was the first thing she heard. Her bedroom window overlooked the neighboring back yard, and she could see a covered patio lined with colored Christmas lights, and smell the sweet aroma of pipe tobacco.

Often, she could hear men talking and laughing. She could tell by their voices, their accents, the way they spoke, that they were black, that they were older, that they were from the South, and that they were musicians, but she could never discern specific words. When the laughter stopped, the music would begin.

So many nights, Sherry would lose herself in that music, letting it distract her from the sounds of her parents fighting downstairs, or, later, from the sound of her mother crying in frustration and desperation, after her father had stormed out yet again, or come home drunk and violent, or finally left forever.

Sometimes, Sherry was half convinced her unseen neighbor and his friends played extra-loud on the really bad nights, just for her.

The music went on all through her middle- and high school years. She always meant to go and knock on the door, bring a batch of cookies (everyone liked cookies, right? And she was a decent baker) and thank him (she was certain it was a him) for the music.

But she never did.

One late-autumn weekend, home from college for the traditional doing of the masses of laundry on Mom’s dime, Sherry sensed a change in the old house.

Sure, it had always been a little bit raggedy, but now, the windows felt empty, the grass was too tall, and that night, there was no talking, no laughter… no music.

The next morning, she layered herself in turtlenecks and flannel and climbed the three cement steps to the front porch and knocked.

She wasn’t expecting a response.

She was half-certain her neighbor had died, and since she’d never bothered to meet him, no one would have thought to tell her. Or her mother.

But a rustling sound came from within, and a man with white hair and dark, weathered skin, opened the door.

“I’m your neighbor,” Sherry said. “I’m Sherry.”

“‘Bout time you came,” the old man said. “Played for you for so long… never a peep. I knew you’d come if I stopped. We’ve been expecting you.”

“I’m sorry?” Sherry said.

“Nothin’ to be sorry about. Just follow me.” And he turned and shuffled back into the house.

Inside, it was just as shabby as outside, but it was also somehow warm and cozy. “That’s Pete,” the old man said. “This here’s Milt, Ron, Joe, and Mona.” He introduced her to a circle of older people, all aged, all with skin and hair like his, all holding instruments. “My hands can’t pluck the strings anymore,” he said. “But yours… yours are young. You can learn.”

“But I’m an economics major,” Sherry protested.

“Economics is what you do. Music is what you are. Today you’re a trouble bass player.”

Trouble bass?”

“Yup. Iff’n you play for nice folks in clubs, it’s double bass, but when you play for the people who need to hear it, need it to keep their hearts whole, it’s trouble bass.”

“So, you were playing for me, all these years?”

“As if you didn’t know.”

“I should have come sooner.”

“Nope. You came when you were ready. Like I said, it’s about time. Now, come here.” And he put his instrument, honey-brown and warm from care and love, in front of Sherry, and helped her place her hands. “Good thing you’re a tall girl.”

For Sherry, learning to play the bass was a sort of homecoming. All the music she’d listened to growing up finally had a place to go, and her fingers – fingers that usually clicked pens or absently tapped on paper – finally had a healthy means of expression.

The old man never shared his name. Only his music. Sherry just called him Mr. Bass Man, or, when she was particularly exasperated with him, Trouble.

Eventually, she took her place – his place – in the circle of players, laughing with them and talking. They shared their histories and she shared hers and it was as if cultures were being bridged in between riffs and licks and improvised melodies.

Trouble breathed his last breath a few days after Sherry graduated.

She was surprised to learn that he had a son – a doctor. He came to close up the house, get it ready to sell. In a romance novel, the two of them would have found a connection, fallen in love, and made music together to honor the old man.

But it wasn’t a romance.

She inherited Trouble’s bass.

His friends dispersed after the funeral.

And Sherry?

Sherry formed a pickup jazz ensemble among the accountants and other eggheads she worked with in the big city. Her condo had a covered patio, and she lined it with fairy lights and invited them to come and eat and drink and laugh and play.

They called themselves Numbers Game.

Cut a few albums.

Played gigs in schools.

Sherry got letters from kids who said their music made them feel safe. That they listened to her walking bass lines when they walked home at night and felt like someone was walking with them. That the music helped put their troubles in a safe place.

She knew that at some point some kid would find her, and she’d have to teach them what she knew.

But until then, Sherry plucked her fingers on the strings of the trouble bass, and found peace.

For years, the house had been rumored to be haunted. It was the one that always seemed neglected. It wasn’t tall or imposing – just a post-war bungalow, like half the houses in the neighborhood, but there was something off about it. The grass was always a touch too long, the shingles too shabby, the windows… when you walked by at dusk or after, it was as if there was something watching from behind them.

But if a person paid attention. If a person really listened… they could hear it, coming from the back yard, or maybe from the kitchen on rainy nights… the sound of a walking bass line, thumping its solidity through the darkened streets, guiding them safely home.