Sunday, April 29, 2012

Slave to the Hours


Let’s call it Shirley, since it really doesn’t have a Christian name that I know of. It’d be called a slave in it’s own time, but most would have been hard pressed to say just why it carried that brand. Not many people have interest in how things work, only in the fact that they do, and even then only if the item affects them directly.

Shirley had purpose originally, she hung in a very special place, well above the drinking fountain between the lavatory doors on the third floor of Bancroft Middle School. Simplistic yet beautiful, her hand carved wooden box, glass door and Roman face mimicked exactly the grand timekeeper which clacked the day away within the school office on the ground floor. Yet unknown to any but the most curious, she had no life of her own; she was completely dependant on another for anything beyond her cosmetic appearance.

There was only one reasonable way to synchronize every clock in a given building to the second, so that it would be 3:04 at the drinking fountain near Mrs. Billerud’s classroom at the exact moment it was 3:04 in the boiler room where the custodian, Mr. Stevens was taking his first nap of the day. There was a single, master clock, just across from the school principle’s door so that each hour crabby old Cromwell S. Graves, Ruler of all he surveyed, could stomp into view and stare at the thin metal hands until they were frightened enough to move into the next hour and ring the infernal bell that signaled one step closer to freedom.

From that one clock came a cable, it’s one end attached to a gear buried within the guts of the great machine, a gear that turned one click with every swing of the Master’s pendulum. The cable snaked it’s way through walls and over trophy cases, behind lockers and under stairways until it came upon the first slave in the chain; a clock with only rudimentary guts, a clock that provided service only by emulating it’s host. And from there, another cable, another snaking, and yet another slave waiting to be led; until every clock in the entire school was tied to one umbilical, the momma clock feeding each one with exactly what they needed to seem independent, useful, important unto themselves.

The third floor lavatory clock was the last in the chain. There was only one cable hole drilled into its side and so it took it’s power from the outside, but never gave of itself.

When I found Shirley lying on her side in a neighbor’s basement she seemed ready to be remade into kindling. She looked empty and worn, no longer attractive even on the outside, as age and the indifference of her handlers had stripped her of any glow she might have had as guardian of the western stairwell and third level bodily function center. Her coat was scratched where it wasn’t rubbed off entirely, her glass door was hanging on by one hinge; her face was cracked, it’s paper thin surface curling in the dryness of northern winters until only six of her dozen numbers were visible. Her hands were pocked with rust and both pointed downward, as if drawing one’s attention to the fact that there was nothing in the cubby below, no pendulum, only air, and stale air at that.

It took a while to bring her back to life, I am only a lover of clocks, not a master craftsman. It’s that fact that has served to keep Shirley exactly as she was, her mission dependant on others. See, I tried to put guts into the old girl, to make her a “real” clock.

I cleaned and worked her wood, polished her glass, glued her face back together as best I could. But her hands were a mess and not being a metalworker there was little I could do but replace them. So I bought the works and mounted the mess of brass clock organs and twirlygigs, glued in a little battery pocket and for a few days Shirley was alive as she’d never been before, a “real” clock, in charge of her own destiny.

But she didn’t seem to like being the decision maker, after a couple of days the pendulum mysteriously stopped and Shirley just sat there, content to be pretty and dysfunctional. I couldn’t argue really, I didn’t like the pendulum from the moment I put it in. I had the right idea, my heart was in the right place, but it just wasn’t her and I should have known to leave well enough alone.

She now hangs in my hallway, somewhat opposite my bedroom door where I can each morning stare at her until she bends to my will and tells me whatever time I want it to be. She not only has no clue what time it actually is as there are no other working clocks within her line of sight, but she wouldn’t care if there were. She’s not a timepiece, but only a conduit, she only ‘does her duty’ when forced by others and she’s tired of that game. I know her; she’d rather just “be”, and that’s fine by me.

Like many of the ghosts of my past she serves no real purpose to me. Clocks are for clocking after all, if she can’t clock what kinda clock is she? That’s exactly why she hangs in my hall, why I bothered with her at all, why I took the time to write about her here. She is so much more than her veneer. If all I desired was the time then I’m sure with a little more glue and baling wire expanded, I could make her give it to me. But what she reminds me is just as precious.

Every time I see her I hear voices, footsteps, bells ringing and students scurrying down hallways. My father might be in that crowd, shuffling from one room to the next, glancing at the girls he thought were pretty, or smart, or easy if that was his thing. I hear the crackle of the school announcement system, the words “now children” …some days I hear the announcement of events, Pearl Harbor, VE day, or the Kennedy assassination.

I can see kids squirting water at each other from the drinking fountain well under the watchful eye of Shirley, the last slave clock in the chain. I see what she witnessed, the years of faces and conversations, the storms that rumbled just outside the mammoth ten pane windows that towered over the nearby stairway, and the streams of sunlight that journeyed down the third floor hallway like automated laser beams or the stretching fingers of the North American sun god.

She hasn’t much inside that still works, it’s hardly practical to have her around, she’s not even all that much to look at truth be told. But some connections are simply spiritual, and you either allow them to exist on the wings of your faith, or you don’t. I choose to believe. Shirley will always have a place in my house. Right up there with my practical clocks.

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