Monday, April 12, 2010

There once was an old man who lived on a hill. To say that this old man owned clocks would be an understatement comparable to saying it is occasionally nippy in Alaska. The amount of clocks that the old man kept in his small house was so great, that neighbors up to a mile away swore they could hear the whirring of gears and the great hollow tick-tocks of countless grandfather clocks. The entire town woke up simultaneously at seven each morning with a cacophony of bells and beeping that visitors to the town often mistook for a fire truck passing, pulling their cars to the side of their lanes and checking in all directions for the phantom vehicle. Where did this strange obsession begin? Rumors abounded, but the most reputable version of the tale came from a teenage girl who had been allowed to enter the house for tea after her dog had decided that the underneath old man's front porch would be the perfect place to play a one-sided game of hide and seek. It seemed that it all had stemmed from a visit to a county fair, rather unsurprisingly, as that is where many things are apt to begin-- relationships, food poisoning, phobias of both clowns and heights.
Many decades earlier, the man, who was then not a man at all, but rather an impressionable boy, had visited a fortune teller at a local fair. As fate would have it, that fortune teller had peered into the murky dregs of a tea cup and saw within them what she promised to be the exact date he would die, right down to the time of day. For a memory slowly becoming blurrier around the edges, the old man had related the next occurrence with gusto, tea splattering his trousers as his hands became more animated. As the fortune teller had listed off those numbers, the cuckoo clock on the wall began to chime. and chime. and chime. Even after the woman had pried out the batteries (and, in her haste, snapped a single talon-like fingernail, letting loose a steady stream of obscenity) and unceremoniously beating the faulty machine against an overstuffed loveseat, it continued to bleat even as the boy hurried out through the beaded curtain. After he had returned home, still shaken from the strange events of the day, the boy quietly removed a clock from the living room and placed it onto his bedside table. He was unable to sleep that night- he watched the minute hand perform its silent, relentless march until the birds outside of his window began to sing of the coming morning.
For her part, the girl who had been privileged as the sole audience to the entire bizarre account immediately retold the story to everyone she encountered, as teenage girls are wont to do, and soon everyone who lived in the town could (and would) retell it just as well, right down to the exact date that the fortune teller had prophesied. Many had it down to an art-- pausing meaningfully particularly after recounting the ceaseless cuckoo clock. While most of the community had accepted the unsolicited wake-up calls and eccentric habits of their neighbor on the hill, a few paticularly loathsome youths had begun to plot a prank to silence the precious clockworks. The plan had been hatched a week prior, a rotten apple of a plan dropped directly from the twisted trunk of a mind belonging to a boy named John, pimple faced and neanderthalic. He soon gathered his equally greasy friends to rally their support.
"Man, I'm sick of this shit. If I wanted to wake up at seven in the morning I would've stayed in high school. I don't care what kind of voodoo bullshit reason everybody thinks he's got, he's just fucking old and crazy. You guys heard the story, right, about the fair and shit?"
"Yeah man," sounded the illiterate chorus.
"Alright. Well, I got this idea, okay? Just follow this for a minute. This guy thinks he's gonna die at this exact date, right? And he's got all these clocks and calenders and shit, and he's like watching them counting down. So I figure this guy's real old, his memory's probably ain't good. It'll be real easy to trick him, see what I'm sayin?"
"Yeah, totally," again the gallery confirmed.
"So I've been watching this guy for the past couple of weeks, seein what he does and shit. And I realized, he only goes into town on Tuesdays, you know, for groceries or whatever. And I was thinkin, why don't we sneak in, and reset all of his clocks and calendars to the time that he's supposed to croak."
"Dude, let's do it,"-- a contribution from Bradley, a heavyset thug with a penchant for locks. Breaking them, specifically.
"Alright, awesome. So how about tomorrow we meet up outside his place, you know, hide out for a little while, and then when he goes out to buy his weekly prune juice, we have a little fun."
Grunts and chuckles in the affirmative followed.
At noon the next day, wooden milkmen and tiny Swedish girls with rosy cheeks and frozen expressions popped from their clockwork homes. They bowed to one another on tiny pegged knees, and spun around in celebration of the passing of another hour and as always, a beautiful day in the cuckoo clock neighborhood. It was fortunate that their tiny happy eyes were only paint on wood, because their wooden knees certainly would have been knocking had they been able to see the two enormous eyes staring back. The eyes, attached to a piggish face and scant brains, were glowing with snorting, greedy glee. Sweaty hands grabbed clock dials and fashioned them at odd angles, pinning them to a time that would have struck fear in many small wooden hearts, had they the capacity to understand the fiendish plot they had involuntarily become agents of.
The same motions were being repeated on all of the many clocks in the house by hands attached to equally brutish bodies with equally shining eyes. Dials were spun, hands were twisted, batteries were pulled, the rapid flipping of innumerable calendar pages producing a sound like a hummingbird's heart on a first date. And then the great, solid, GONG of bat against the innards of grandfather clocks, turning ambitious gears and cogs into modern art. Every cuckoo worth his salt had picked up his springs and ran back home. The row of clocks that formed a sprawling countryside of tiny Milkmaids and fat boys in suspenders was a ghost town-- they had assumed the bomb raid position and showed no signs of moving. Electronic clocks glowed blankly. Four sets of eyes did the same as they surveyed their handiwork. Not so much as a single minute hand out of position, not a single calender date gone unchecked. Not bad for boys who, among them, could barely scrape together the equivalent of a high school education. They wiped their sweaty brows onto their shirt sleeves, sniggering, high fiving.
"Alright, we've got like fifteen minutes. I say, we go wait behind the back window for the show to begin," said John, ever the moving orator. And, like good little boys, the rest of his cronies followed single file, carefully shutting the door behind them.
It would have made the old man proud, the manner in which John compulsively checked his wrist watch for the remainder of that fifteen minutes-- perhaps it would have reminded him of himself as a boy. When the last painful seconds crawled by, he began to elbow his companions and hissed out a stern, "Shhh!"
The old man, who had at that moment breached the hill, might have wondered for a second if a garden snake had taken up residence in his yard. His thin legs carried him and his bulging brown bags of groceries quickly through snake territory, onto the front porch, where he swung open the door. Had he locked it before leaving? He couldn't remember.
If the old man had found the noise he'd heard approaching the lawn odd, he certainly found the lack of noise inside of his house odd. He swiveled his head and tea-saucer ears to each side, catching only the faint buzz of white silence. And that's when he noticed. Hands trembling, he slowly approached his kitchen clock. The face of the clock, a bewhiskered cat fashioned out of plastic, seemed to be smiling more broadly than usual, but its pendulum tail lay stock still. And its hands, or rather paws, pointed at at the time that had brought the man jolting out of his sleep in cold sweat countless times since boyhood. The first bag of groceries dropped. Cans rolled across the floor in waves that broke at counters. Outside the window, the boys stifled laughter with their hands clasped over their mouths. The laughter slowly broke up after the second bag dropped. The old man stumbled into his living room as if in a trance, foot catching on the worn rug, leaving him sprawled below the largest clock in his collection- the grandfather clock, which at this moment peered down at him with no sympathy in its solid face, no quiet turning of gears, no tick-tocks, no movement at all. Slowly, the old man began to mirror his treasured clock. His face hardening into oaken acceptance, every movement stilled except for the slow panning of milky eyes across his loyal clocks, in which he found the same cold resolution. Betrayed by time, betrayed by his clocks, the old man let out one last sigh, the shine went out of those clouded orbs, and his own organic tick-tock ceased to keep time.
Outside, John stood alone. "Jesus, I didn't...I thought..." he looked around him, and realized his friends had long since ran off.
John alone would be the one to witness what occurred next. Every clock in the house began to ring in a slower, muted approximation of their former orchestrations. And ring. And ring. And ring. John ran back to town that afternoon and told everyone he could find of what had happened- but who would believe a brute like him?

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