Their mother missed the watch immediately. It was the first of many little puzzles humming around the riddle of their father’s blood, the care he had taken to open his wrists—twin incisions, each neatly following a vein from just above the pad of the palm upward several inches toward the elbow. And so unlike him—to have fallen in the mess he made bleeding, face down in clean khakis.
Not one among them—Berndt, Willie, Gus, their mother—could swear to have seen the watch on Garett Hoffman’s wrist beforehand, while he sharpened his knives, or when he took the thirty-ought-six from the gun closet and went out to kill the pig. He’d worn the watch his every waking hour, removing it, from wrist to pocket—and then only at the last minute—for rough or dirty work. Done, he had always taken the watch from his pocket and held it to his ear, then buckled it back on his wrist. To have left the house that morning without it plainly visible would have stirred suspicion. Before he got to the pens, before he put the sticking knife to use, he must have removed the watch, a final gesture of care, not wanting it ruined.
They never forgot the blood, the pool of it beneath him—and nearby the empty sled that served to move a freshly killed pig on butcher day, their father’s work jacket folded neatly and lying there beneath a chill gray sky.
Their mother gave a great cry when she reached him and dropped to her knees. For a little while after, she seemed calm, bending over him, saying his name, saying Garret, as if to a child who has done the saddest, the most pathetic thing. And then no, her head turning from him, her eyes searching her sons, the pigs, the trees, repeating the word each time her eye alit, putting this one syllable between herself and what could not be made right. Finally back to their father again, saying Garret, no. Shaking her head, shaking herself, raising her voice to the sky, a fierce shout coming out of her.
For a space of breaths, she took up their father’s hand—the one that had reached free of pooled blood—the knuckled back of it unmarred, wrist and forearm bare where he’d rolled his sleeve. No blood vessels bulged beneath the skin, a pallor like candle wax leaching the russet of his years in the fields.
“The watch,” she said. “Your father is missing his watch.”
“Garret,” she said. “What have you done with your watch?” And then, as if searching for a clue, she turned the hand she held, his watchless wrist turning with it, the incision revealed, blood caking in the cuffed sleeve. She turned the hand back, hiding the cut, and lowered it to the ground.
She stood, then, turning to Willie and Gus.
“Get a bucket of water,” she said. “Soap. Towels.”
Willie and Gus didn’t move.
She clapped her hands, once and bluntly, like the crack of a whip in the air between them. “Do what I say.”
Willie and Gus took off at a run.
“He’ll need clean clothes,” she said to Berndt. “Fresh shirt and pants. And not a spot on them.” Then, before he had taken a step, “Wait. He’ll be soaked to the skin. Bring fresh boxers, an undershirt. Go.”
They came with what she had asked for—water set beside their mother, soap and towels neatly arranged on the sled while Berndt looked on, his father’s fresh clothes at his chest where he hugged them, their scent in the sharp cool air—cotton, starch, his mother’s iron. The scent of his father, the things he wore. And his mother, what she did for them.
“I’ll clean him up,” she said and ordered them away.
No one moved.
“Get,” she said. “I don’t want you to see him like this.”
It was too late. Berndt had found his father. Willie and Gus had seen him on the ground. When they didn’t budge, she ran shrieking at the older two. They ran and turned, ran and turned again, saying “Momma, Momma.” Berndt stood beside the sled wondering how it was she could send him away if she wanted the clothes he’d fetched to stay clean. He couldn’t put them down. He’d have to hold them for her. But she wouldn’t stop chasing and his brothers wouldn’t leave.
While they ran this frantic game of tag, Aunt Norma walked around the corner of the barn. Who had called her? Willie? Gus? She walked past them, past their mother, past Berndt. She stood beside their father for a stretch of moments, then turned and started giving orders. She didn’t go to their mother, didn’t so much as acknowledge what she had seen.
She put herself between mother and sons. She posted Willie, Gus, Berndt by the barn. “Stay back,” she said. “You’ll be needed. Come when I call you.” And to Berndt, an echo of their mother. “Not a spot on your father’s things.” She went back to Momma. But the look in her eyes. Berndt never forgot the look shining out of her eyes.
Before they could so much as peek around the corner of the barn, Aunt Norma called for Willie and Gus. Berndt followed along.
“We can’t get him clean in this dirt,” she said. “Help us. We’ll put him on the sled.”
When they turned him over, Gus let go and started back.
“Get back here,” Aunt Norma said. “He’s heavy. You’re strong. We need you.”
“He’s gone,” their mother said. “He can’t hurt you now.”
The watch had come to their father from France. This would have been in 1932 or ’33. Berndt was twelve when his father died, in the fall of 1937. He had been in school already when the strange package arrived, but he couldn’t recall which year. And there was no one to ask. Once—oh, years and years later—he said to his wife that he could have asked his mother. Momma never said they couldn’t talk about their father. But silence had taken hold. And how to break it? Of course, by the time it occurred to Berndt that he could talk to his mother, it was too late. Dementia had laid its claim on her.
On the day the watch arrived, she had driven to the mailbox. When they returned from the fields, she gave their father a strange look and escorted him to the dining table. At his place sat a cardboard box—shaped like a hatbox, though somewhat larger—with a dull waxy coating of some kind, and strapped about, this way and that, with heavy twine. It might have been a mail-order package, but the twine augured otherwise, as did the edges of the box, much frayed by distance. And the stamps, the notations of foreign travel. Daddy sat down and carefully opened the box. It was made of heavy, corrugated cardboard, double-layered, coated inside and out with the waxy stuff. Within was an old quilt, and this is where their mother started in. She had stood there looking plainly cross, but not a word out of her. The quilt tipped her balance. Who would have shipped that old thing? And all this way? It wasn’t even folded properly.
Their father began to unfurl the quilt. Inside its folds was a little wooden box, beautifully made, with beveled corners, its lid snugly secured by brass screws. Berndt and his brothers merely fidgeted while Daddy loosened the screws. They’d been trained to watch their manners—and their tongues. Not so their mother. Not that afternoon. She kept at it with her questions, though Daddy didn’t say a word. The screws out, he removed the lid to reveal a little bundle wrapped in an oiled cloth. He loosed the cloth and removed a watch. The face of it was large for a wrist watch, a white face, with large numbers in outline to indicate the hours. To Berndt they looked like perfect stencil tracings. His teacher would have been pleased, though the six had been omitted—a much smaller face inset there for seconds.
A pocket watch is what it looked like, a pocket watch with leather bands and buckle. A very nice pocket watch. But still. To have been sent across an ocean.
“Who’s it from?” Momma wanted to know.
“It doesn’t say.” Their father lifted the box toward her. There was no sign of a letter, no visible indication of who had shipped the watch.
Momma grabbed up the old quilt and shook it out. Nothing.
“Why in the world would anyone have sent this?” She waved the quilt at him. It had seen better days.
“That was for padding,” he said. “Burn it.”
Undeterred, she peppered their father with questions—the same as before, mostly—in whatever order they seemed to strike her.
Their father didn’t answer, addressing his attention instead to the watch. He set it, wound it, held it to his ear—then put the timepiece to his wrist, buckled it, walked into the bedroom he shared with their mother and closed the door. She followed. There were sharp words, raised voices. But if their father had any idea who had sent the watch, or why, he kept it to himself.
He had spent time in France. Berndt, Willie, Gus—they knew this about their father. He’d been with the ambulance service—in 1918, seven years before Berndt was born. Aside from Daddy’s buddies in the war—and they had either come home or got buried in French graves—aside from them, who would have known their father in that long-ago time? Why send him a watch? Why now, so many years later?
Berndt seemed to remember that his father had been at Belleau Wood. Or had he imagined this?—hearing grown-ups say the words—Belleau Wood—their tone hushed. He was in high school before he saw the words in print—and smiled at himself. He’d been so young, a toddler really, when the French woods came into his vocabulary. All this time, in his ear, the place was Bellow Wood. He’d pictured cows there, among the trees, the Howitzers, the barbed wire.
Wherever Garret Hoffman might have served, whoever might have started the strange package on its way to a Texas farm, their father wore the watch that came and didn’t offer a clue about its origin. He had a bad spell after it arrived—the longest one Berndt could remember—in bed for days and then sitting, in his robe, disheveled, for several more. Hardly a word came out of him.
Momma shooed them outside and put them to work in the yard. Except for intervals when they heard her voice—soft, mostly, with brief, sharp eruptions—there was no sign from indoors. “He’s in a black cloud,” Momma said, when Aunt Norma dropped by. They talked on the front porch. Momma wouldn’t let her sister come inside while he was like that.
Bad spells. Black days. They were part of life with Garret Hoffman.
Finally one morning, their father was up and coming through the house to wake them. He went out for chores and was back for breakfast, the watch on his wrist. He developed a ritual for winding it, holding it to his ear before and after, attentive to the inner movement. He let no one handle the watch, but one of them could stand beside his chair and listen while he held the crystal to an eager ear. He was careful about work that might scratch the watch face or jar the little wheels that turned inside. One of his buttoned pockets held the watch for carpentry, fence-mending, and such. He was careful of the band, too, oiling it, putting the watch in a pocket while he worked on the float at the water trough.
Not long after the watch arrived, he took it to a jeweler at the county seat. The little man behind the glass display case put on his jeweler’s eye. He looked and looked. Shaking his head, he clicked his tongue. It was Swiss-made, he said, by Tavannes—a trench style timepiece. Looked to be from the last of the war years. He pulled a watch from his window display and pointed out its snap-on back and bezel. Daddy’s watch was different. It had a screw-on back and bezel. Harder to make them that way, the jeweler said. Expensive. Better at keeping dust and moisture out. This was watch-making at its best. “Take good care of it,” he said. “Could last you a lifetime.”
After that, the watch was regularly in one of their father’s buttoned pockets while he worked. It was always with him—never farther than his little bedside table.
As for the quilt the watch had come wrapped in, their mother didn’t burn it. She washed it carefully, by hand, and dried it indoors on the wooden rack she used for drying clothes in winter, turning it by the hour to let the air get at both sides. She folded it into a mail-order box, meticulous as a flag, with naphthalene crystals between the folds, and stored it on a shelf in her bedroom closet. She moved it with her when she built a house in town. That was 1952. The quilt was there, among her things, in 1979 when Berndt cleaned out the little house after her funeral. He took it home with him, not ready to lose the story buried in its silent folds—of crossing the Atlantic, of the bodies it had warmed, the lives, somewhere in France. In a little farmhouse, Berndt liked to imagine, with a yard full of cats and a milk cow at the fence.
“Oh, Berndt, honestly,” his wife said, tilting her head to look at him over the rims of her glasses, like a school teacher taking aim at the class dimwit. Esther didn’t care about the blanket. She made no place in her heart for most things sentimental. The advice their father had given their mother so many years ago, on the day he opened the box—it was the kind of advice that appealed to Berndt’s wife. “Burn it,” Daddy had said. And that’s what Esther did.
Their father went to his casket, finally, in a wool suit with no watch on his wrist. There had been a day of searching—Aunt Norma indoors with their mother, Berndt and his brothers outside—the frenzy of their mother’s grief channeled into this one thing they could do. Berndt had searched the tractor shed—the drawers beneath the top of his father’s workbench, a dozen mason jars lined up along a two-by-four that braced the wall above. He opened each drawer and rattled among the miscellany, the tools, took up each jar of nails or screws and held it to a panel of light pouring between two boards in the wall. He studied the filtered sun inside the dusty glass, each jar pooling with its own dimmed glow.
His parents’ bedroom, when he got back indoors, was like something out of a detective novel. Momma had ransacked it—every drawer pulled out and spilling, boxes dragged from the closet, their contents topsy-turvy, the mattress, even, yanked off the springs to sag against the wall.
His aunts and uncles, the friends and neighbors who came to see their father in his casket—they spoke of the dead as if he were sleeping. Berndt had been going to funerals for as long as he could remember. He thought the folks he’d seen in caskets looked dead. His father, in his, did not look to be sleeping. Silence eddied around him like the smell of wool and pipe tobacco, a disease, an infection his opened wrists had passed to Berndt and his brothers, and they to everyone who met their eyes. Struck dumb, all of them, looking elsewhere.
On the October day their father had taken his life, the weather was raw, as befits a butcher day, the sky a close, dense gray, the grass and underbrush and trees fading with the onset of fall. By the day of the funeral, the weather had warmed, but the overcast stayed. Watching the casket descend, Berndt hugged himself. He felt cold to his bones.
Their father buried, their goodbyes made as best they could, Berndt and his brothers went back to school and home to work. There was a farm to run, mules to care for, pigs to haul to market. There was lard to be made into soap, plowing equipment to be readied for spring. Each day they did the things their father had taught them.
On a morning weeks after the graveside service Berndt was mid-step to the pig-pen fence, a bucket of water in his grip for the trough, when a glimmer of light winked at him from the mesquite that shaded the pen, and his heart tried to break loose from its cage. At eye level, as if put there with him in mind, his father’s watch caught early sun and splashed it back at the morning. The watch had been carefully buckled into place near the base of a branch thick as a man’s wrist. Sixty-five years later common sense had not entirely erased Berndt’s certainty that Daddy had come back in the night and put the watch where he would find it. He put his ear to the crystal, half expecting to hear the gears inside it keeping time. Inside his listening ear, beneath the mesquite branch’s smooth bark, the sap rose—slow, silent—the steady pulse that moved the tree.
Tears came so suddenly Berndt couldn’t see to help his hasty fingers unbuckle the watch. “Goddamn you, Goddamn you,” he said, and yanked the watchband free. He gripped his father’s watch and slammed the unmarred face against the tree—again, again—fragments of glass and tiny gear wheels dropping into the dust at his feet. He knelt, then, and picked up all the pieces he could find. A splinter of glass from the watch face pricked his thumb, a drop of blood welling on the fleshy pad.
Berndt was calm now. He walked to the Agua Dulce and scratched a shallow hole in the loose silt of the creek bed. He buried the shattered watch, the broken pieces, and went back to his chores. The pigs were waiting. They would be hungry.
Winner of the Writers’ League of Texas Manuscript Contest in Mainstream Friction, 2011, David Meischen has short stories in or forthcoming in Bellingham Review, Superstition Review, and Talking Writing. His work has appeared in The Southern Review, Southern Poetry Review, Borderlands, Cider Press Review, and elsewhere. As a founder of Dos Gatos Press, he is co-editor of Wingbeats: Exercises and Practice in Poetry, scheduled for an August release. Meischen has an MFA in fiction from Texas State University, San Marcos. He is the recipient of a writing residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: “Center Wheel, Balance Wheel, Escape Wheel” started with the image of a watch fastened to the branch of a mesquite tree. The story’s last scene, when Berndt finds the watch fastened there, was the first scene I wrote. After that, my challenge was to put the watch front and center, to make it a credible part of the world Berndt inhabits.
Q: What's your second favorite place on Earth, and why?
A: I am given to superlatives, which is to say that in any category, I have several favorites. For many reasons, though, Austin, Texas is my favorite place on Earth. A second favorite place would be Taos, New Mexico. I love the quality of light in the landscape around Taos--and the feeling I have when I immerse myself in this landscape that I am connected to something ancient and eternal.
Q: PC, or Mac?
Q: What's your process when writing a short story?
A: Often I start with a moment glimpsed out of context, and I write a story to find a context for the moment. One of my stories began, for example, with a man finding a pair of glasses in a dry creek bottom, and I thought, these are his son's glasses. But what happened to the son? Did he drown in the creek? And what happened between father and son in the days beforehand? I discovered that there had been trouble between father and son, that the father carried a burden of guilt after his son disappeared, presumed drowned. The father, like many of the men I knew growing up, kept a rather tight rein on himself. The challenge for me was to express an inner life that I could feel in him but that he would not express in words. I want to write stories that explore the heart of a mystery and simultaneously discover mysteries that perhaps cannot be explained away.
Q: If you weren't a writer, what would you be?
A: It's a huge if, but I have often thought that in another place and time, I could have been a successful dancer. I grew up with country music and country music dances. I LOVED dancing, but the possibility of dancing as a career didn't occur to me until it would have been too late to train the instrument of the body to meet the challenges of the art.
1. LAUNCH PAD
You may think our lives are forever…
One, two, buckle my shoes.
One, two, see the bay slide open, the hydrogen fumes glitter, the window approach
within and through which time disappear.
Three, four, knock at the door,
Three, four, and for what did you come? All this and more? Nothing less?
Something still? And was it, yes, peace in the end?
Five, six, pick up sticks.
Five, six, and now the thrust, the house on Maple lifting off, monsters and
angels awaiting you. How many dancers on the head of that pin? Count them, slowly now, as if your life, as if life, as if this nursery round can you bring you back.
Seven, eight, lay them straight.
Seven, eight, and now you Mary, or you, John, number them all your friends
dancing there on the hill, religion or not, can they not gather here, and forget being straight or queer, lovely is as lovely does: eight, thirteen, twenty-one ….
Nine, ten, a big, fat hen.
Nine, ten, there and back again, searching every hedgerow, every cosmic glitch
and wormhole, every pulsing wave of ancient light – it’s all in the numbers and the sweat a man or woman leaves to signature their having been here and there
Eleven, twelve, dig and delve.
Eleven, twelve, yes, Adam did, and Eve span, and their numbers mounted ever since,
climbed the ladder to the stars, even eleven for the eleven who went to heaven. And twelve? I’ll count my self, and delve, dig, search, keep track of the numbers, the light-lit miles between here and there, between now and then, between us both.
Thirteen, twenty-one, thirty-four, fifty-five, eighty-nine….
Jump rope skipping time.
Marc Harshman’s eleven children’s books include The Storm, a Smithsonian Notable Book. New titles are forthcoming from Eerdmans and Macmillan. His third chapbook of poems, Local Journeys, was published by Finishing Line. Periodical publication of poems in the U.S. include The Georgia Review, Wilderness, Southern Humanities Review, Shenandoah, 5 AM, and The Progressive. His poems have been anthologized in publications by Kent State University, the University of Iowa, University of Georgia, and the University of Arizona. His prose poems and flash fiction have recently won awards from the Newport Review and Literal Latté and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Q: What was the genesis of this poem?
A: “Skipping Time” is one of those happy accidents of a poem. Not really at all sure about its genesis other than that I was throwing words onto the page and they began to shape themselves around a very loose notion of remembered skipping rhymes overheard from my wife and daughter. From that the addition of numbers began nudging the poem forward. Otherwise, in subtle ways I don’t quite understand, one of Sandy Denny’s lovely songs, “Peace in the End,” was playing in my head, if not on the stereo. “Mary” and “John” are lifted from there, as well as the epigraph, if not other bits. And as if often the case when I have some other “art” pulsing strongly through my veins, bits of Sandy’s lyrics would pop into several poems over the case of several days and weeks.