Cold rain awakens me. My sleeping bag and I are drenched. Belatedly, I dig a sheet of plastic from my backpack and pull it over me. I’m fucking chilled—shivering uncontrollably. Angry I failed to check the weather report last night, I lie on my side and listen as raindrops hit the plastic, every droplet a tiny explosion of torment. Falling asleep again is impossible.
Most nights I sleep on this bench. It has certain advantages. Music and crowd noise from the sports bar across the street ease my loneliness and lull me to sleep. Often I’m able to sneak through a back door and use the joint’s facilities. And the police station is but a half block away. Patrol cars come and go all night long. If someone screws with me, the cops are a shout away. The negatives are pretty much the same as the positives—a busy street, earsplitting tunes, and nosy police everywhere.
A wet sleeping bag can’t cushion the bench’s hard slats. My hand, shoulder, and hip have gone numb. Shifting my weight, my legs cramp. I sit up and massage my calves until the muscles relax. Unsure whether to lie down again or call it a night, I finger my gold wedding band. Aside from a grown son, Michael, the ring is all that remains of my 23-year marriage. It’s my savings account, my backup plan, the last possession left to pawn in an emergency. So far I’ve managed to keep it on my finger, but I make no promises.
Dawn’s morning sun lights purple, orange, and yellow clouds on fire. Ordinarily I’d sleep till 9:00 or 10:00, but not today. I wring out my sleeping bag, drape it over the bench, and change my T-shirt. I eat a burger I’ve saved from last night’s supper. Tuesday evenings at 5:00 or 5:15, two guys on Harleys wearing helmets with visors buzz around Clear Lake, stopping here and there to pass out sandwiches. None of us knows who they are or why they do it. “What about the other six days?” I’ve asked them over and over, but they never answer.
As I nibble my burger to make it last, dog owners and runners and morning walkers begin to appear. I watch them watching me as they pass. They avoid eye contact, move as far away as the sidewalk allows, quickening their pace in case I might ask for spare change. One out of twenty may nod or say hello. One out of fifty may, unbidden, give me a dollar or two. I thank the unselfish and offer to read a poem I’ve written in return for their generosity. Most say they’re too busy to take a moment. “Understand,” I tell them. Once I was too busy.
The ladies from the Bethel Apostolic Church are setting up shop on the corner a half block away. Wearing a flower-print dress, a Bible tucked in the crook of her arm, a smiling gray-haired woman heads my way. I avoid professional do-gooders who pass out blankets, shoes, or toiletries for the opportunity to have a crack at my soul. Reckon it’s mine to lose or not. Occasionally, though, I’ll play along, accepting their gifts and their pamphlets with appropriate, if insincere, gratitude. Today, however, waterlogged and exhausted, I’m not in the mood. Shaking my head, I shout, “Another time, sister.”
I roll up my wet sleeping bag, hoist my backpack, and set out for the Laundromat. My territory, five or six blocks south of Clear Lake, has all the necessities—the St. Vincent de Paul shelter, a free clinic and food pantry, two liquor stores, a coffee shop, and four bars. In the center of it all sits my clock. The hands on its four faces are frozen: 12:24 (west); 12:15 (south); 12:17 (east); and 12:22 (north). Here, time has shouted its last hurrah. I approach and press my fingers to the rusted ten-foot post, touch my forehead to the cold steel, and close my eyes. For this moment my dubious future is suspended. I feel safe.
I sense a presence. Releasing my grip, I lift my head. Across crumbling tarmac covered with broken glass, yellowed newsprint, syringes, condoms, and smashed remnants of fast-food containers, a large new sign reads, “Coming Soon. This Entire Block to be Redeveloped. For Information Call…” Damn. This is terrible news. Awful. I suppose they’ll tear down my clock along with the Union Trust Bank it once served. In the name of a whore called “Progress.” Always in her name. Me, I can’t be seduced.
I resume my journey. Midmorning heat begins to close in. Wet sidewalks steam. I make a left and head toward the Laundromat on the far side of the lake. Surrounded by a wide walkway, shade trees, and park benches, Clear Lake is favored by my brethren who prefer its gentle slopes, its bushes and pathways. As I circle the waters, two ambulances, red lights flashing, scream to a stop nearby. Shouting bystanders direct emergency medical technicians with gurneys to bodies lying along the grassy shore. A man, Chester, Chet, he told me his name was, staggers and stumbles by me, barely able to keep himself upright. When I’m three-quarters of the way around, the ambulances still haven’t moved. Blue-uniformed EMTs talk and laugh as they tend to the fallen. Only one has been lifted onto a gurney. They’re in no hurry.
I turn left again at the wig shop, pass by my favorite spot to earn a few bucks, and tackle the final block. I weave through tables that jam the sidewalk—tourists having breakfast. There’s barely enough room for me to pass. I want to scream at them to get the hell out of my way. Lately I’m finding it hard to restrain my anger. The smallest provocation sets me off. There’s the sports bar manager who shoos me away saying he’ll call the police if I don’t move on, the director of the men’s shelter enforcing his silly rules when all I want is a hot meal and a bed for the night, or the surly cop who stops me and demands my ID for no reason at all.
At the Laundromat the attendant is nowhere in sight. My lucky day. I shake the change machine until it coughs up the quarters I need to dry my stuff and borrow two sheets of Bounce from an unsuspecting customer. Waiting for my clothes and my sleeping bag to dry, I nod off for a half hour. A woman with orange hair shakes me gently awake, nods at my dryer, its cycle completed, and asks me to remove my stuff so she can use it. “No problem,” I say. The nap has improved my outlook. I change clothes in the restroom before the attendant returns. Freshened jeans and a T feel soft against my skin. The world seems like a better place.
My return takes me back by the clock. I linger a moment, telling her I hope she’ll avoid the wrecking ball. “You’ve been a comfort, old girl,” I whisper.
A stranger riding an old banged-up Schwinn stops. The soles of his Nikes flap as he drops his feet from the pedals to the pavement. He carries an overstuffed pink Barbie doll backpack strung over one shoulder. His face is medium brown and freckled. He might be thirty-five or sixty-five. A plastic milk crate full of empty bottles and pop cans, bits of rusted scrap metal, and partial rolls of toilet paper is bungee-corded to the rear fender.
“Hey, cousin,” I say. “If you need a place to sleep tonight, try the shelter three blocks down on the left.”
His face is a chowder of confusion. He looks past me at the clock. Fingers pulse on his brake levers. “Damn, ain’t that the strangest thing you ever seen?” He pushes up the bill of his Red Sox ball cap and shakes his head.
I take a step backward. A branch of the overgrown bush behind the clock tickles my shoulder blades. I ask him to explain.
His elbows lean on the handlebar. He checks his wristwatch, then looks up and points. “Man, what’s that clock doing here, all by its lonesome, not even keeping time?”
Good fortune at the Laundromat gives me an ounce more patience than usual. I tell him the clock has been here on this corner by itself for all the years that I’ve lived in the neighborhood. “It’s not bothering you, so what’s your damn problem?”
He lifts his cap and reveals a shaved head. “It’s just plain wrong. A waste, man.” He shakes his fist. “That’s worth some money. A person could fix the thing and move it somewhere else. Or sell it for scrap. Bet I could get a couple hundred bucks easy.”
“My clock is fine just the way it is.”
“Your clock?” He tells me I’m fucking nuts.
“That may be,” I say. “This clock has retired. It deserves to rest and should be left alone.”
“Not everything need serve a purpose.”
“Are you kidding?” He drops his chin and shakes his head. “Nah. No way. Where you live maybe. Not where I live.” His arm sweeps in an arc to describe the furthest reaches of the city. “Hell, no.” He smacks his lips.
I’m not worried. The clock’s going nowhere. He lacks the ways and means to act on his intentions. “Got to go, cousin. Good to talk to you.”
I step sideways, but he lets his bike roll forward to cut me off. He eyeballs me. “Mister, you sure don’t look like you got anywhere you need to be right now. We’re having a conversation here. Don’t be a rude motherfucker.”
I lift my hands, palms outward. “I meant no disrespect.”
A police cruiser passes. By the time I decide it might be a good idea to yell for help, the patrol car is two blocks away.
The stranger nods at a trash can nearby. “Expect you think it’s okay for all the stuff in there to have no purpose.”
For years I’ve made my living relying on the kindness of strangers. Collecting and selling cans and bottles isn’t part of my business plan. Too labor-intensive. Too dependent on the market price for aluminum and plastic. But if others want to scavenge, it’s no skin off my ass. I shrug noncommittally. “Hard to tell. Guess that trash has outlived its usefulness or it wouldn’t be trash.”
“There’s treasure inside.”
“Whatever you say.”
He gestures at the crate on the back of his bicycle. “All this came from bins around here. A person’s gotta have game. Get up every day and work hard, man. Know what I mean?”
I took his meaning but didn’t agree. In my peak earning years as an accountant, I always had a checklist of things I wanted to accomplish. But I’d sit down at my desk and the phone would ring—a client calling with an urgent tax problem needing immediate advice and attention. In an instant my to-do list for the day was out the window. I’d leave work late with the items mostly left undone. But that was fine, because I’d get to them tomorrow. That’s how it was then. Clients ran my life until I said, Fuck this shit.
“You’re an ignorant motherfucker.”
“I go with the flow now, cousin. Organizing my days is in the past.”
“Then you and that dumb clock are in the same damn boat. Yes sir, two peas in a pod.” He brushes his hands together, ridding himself of me, certifying my uselessness as a human being, and pedals away.
“Don’t you disrespect my clock!” I yell after him.
* * *
Around 10:15 the following morning I grab a free newspaper from the dispenser near my bench and begin to read. The road is still puddled from previous thunderstorms, the air soggy, ready to fuel the next round. On the sports bar’s patio and in its parking lot, workers are cleaning up after a rowdy Thursday-night crowd. The smell of coffee from the nearby shop reminds me I haven’t eaten. The motorcycle men definitely need to pick it up a notch. Having no plan B, I cross the street to walk on the shady side and set out for the men’s shelter.
As I come abreast of the vacant Union Trust Company building and parking lot, my eyes search for the clock. It’s there, across the street, but on its side, a lump of concrete covered with dirt on one end, a chain attached to the stanchion on the other. The business end of the chain is hooked to a flatbed truck with a red cab and white lettering on the door: Sterling Brothers Wrecking and Hauling for All Your Demolition Needs.
Two men are talking. Bareheaded with a thick mane of gray hair, the older of the two wears a dirty white long-sleeved shirt under bib overalls and yellow leather work gloves. The other is dressed in a tan uniform. The brim of a large straw hat shelters his face from the sun.
This can’t be a coincidence, I think. That stranger on the bicycle from yesterday has more juice than I thought. He’s responsible for these men snatching my clock. Going to sell it for scrap like he said. Damn him. Damn them. If he were here, I’d kick his ass.
“Excuse me!” I shout. “What’s going on?”
The workmen ignore me. “Should’ve told us how heavy this thing is,” the younger one complains. “I mean when the boss said this job was removing a clock, I thought, like, how fucking difficult can it be? Piece of cake, right?”
“Winch don’t work,” Bibbed Overalls replies. “Should’ve brought the lift truck, I reckon.”
“We’ll have to go back to the shop.”
“Boss’ll be pissed.”
“Another try then.”
I huff across the street and stop on the sidewalk. “Assholes!” I shake my fist until I get their attention. “You’re trespassing on private property. You’re stealing. Get the hell out of here. I know the owner. I’m going to call him.” Bluffing, I reach into my pocket for my nonexistent cell phone.
“What does it look like we’re doing?” Bibbed Overalls says. “Who the hell are you, old man? Get lost.”
The clock is a sad mess—its standard bent where the chain is attached, one of its glass faces spider-webbed, the hands missing. As if fleeing the carnage, broken wires jut from the concrete base.
Hoping to intimidate the workers, I approach. “This is theft, malicious destruction of property. I’m calling the cops.”
They laugh. Tan Uniform grabs me by the strap of my backpack and spins me like a dervish. I stagger and nearly fall. “There. Hide-and-seek. Disappear somewhere.”
In seconds my anger boils hot and overflows. I should walk away, but can’t. Someone has to pay for this outrage. Intending to deliver a forearm shiver, a gridiron maneuver I haven’t tried in over thirty-five years but have thought a lot about lately, I launch myself at Tan Uniform.
Badly miscalculating my point of departure, I let out a war cry. Tan Uniform gives me a startled look, but easily steps aside. I land on my face. My cheek impales on a shard of broken glass. My neck strikes a chunk of asphalt. I try to rise up onto my hands and knees, but the lot tilts, begins to whirl, and I go unconscious.
After who knows how long, I come to and roll over onto my back. The glass loosens and falls from my gooey cheek as I turn. My mind is a piano with missing keys. My lips taste like copper; my knees won’t bend. The demolition assholes are gone, but the stranger from yesterday hovers on his bicycle, his torso dark against a backdrop of fast-moving clouds. He studies me.
My lips move, but no sound comes out.
“That dude over there called 9-1-1.” He points at a man with a little white dog on a leash lurking nearby, a blurry image I can barely make out.
A siren moans in the distance. I close my eyes. This is all your fault, I want to say. If only I could speak. For years no one but me paid this clock a bit of attention. Then you come along and the very next day these bastards show up and take it down.
“Yesterday, when we was talking, you didn’t strike me as a man who used no drugs,” the bicyclist says. “Just goes to show, don’t it?”
I open my mouth to protest. I may not be able to speak, but I have my picture ID. I’ll show it to the EMTs and tell them I’m not the man I appear to be. I’m a solid citizen—former taxpayer, American Express cardholder, and CPA specializing in defined contribution benefit plans.
“That clock we was fussing about yesterday is gone. Disappeared. Stolen. Don’t see it anywhere. Told you it was worth some cheese.”
From afar lightning flashes. Seconds later the sky grumbles.
“Yes, sir. Someone beat me to it. Somebody had game all right and played to perfection.”
A fresh-faced EMT appears at my side. “What’s your name? What happened?”
I point at my throat and shake my head.
He turns to the man on the bicycle and asks the same questions.
“No fucking clue,” the stranger says. “Just some old dude I met here yesterday. Got all worked up about a clock that was on this corner. Didn’t mention his name. He was wandering around the neighborhood with no place to go. Today I found him here on the same spot, passed out. He’s all yours.” Bottles and cans in the milk crate rattle as he pedals away.
“What happened, old-timer?” An EMT sets his bag on the ground and squats. His voice has the gentle lilt of a native son. His face wears a kindly expression.
I move my lips again in a vain attempt to speak. If I could, I’d tell him that I fell in battle, trying to defend my clock against two men who were ripping it off. I’d say I’m not that old either, though my looks might indicate otherwise. The wind and the sun have taken their toll. “Clock” is all I can manage to whisper.
“You’re out of it.”
I reach back for my ID, but my pocket is empty. Don’t pay attention to my clothes. I’m not a bum. I live a few blocks down the street in those new Section Eight apartments. You can check.
The medic begins to work on me, cleaning and bandaging my wounds, checking for broken limbs. “You’ll need stitches for that cut on your face.” He gestures at an empty half-pint Jim Beam bottle. “Is that what you were drinking?”
Swear I haven’t had a drink.
He gestures at my wedding band. “Wife? Children? Is there someone we can call to let them know where we’ll be taking you?” His partner standing beside the gurney pulls out his cell.
Think. Speak up. I can’t recall son Michael’s phone number. I keep it on a slip of paper in my pocket, wrapped around my ID. He told me to call when I was ready to help myself. I had a choice to make. He couldn’t fix everything.
“No next of kin? Well, that’s too bad.”
My right hand locks on the technician’s forearm.
With my left hand I finger my larynx.
He loosens my grip. “Don’t worry. I’ll have the doc to take a look. When you’re sober, you’ll speak again.”
My eyes close. Tears wet my cheeks. The clock is gone. There’s no pole for me to lean against, nothing to restrain my future from tumbling ever downward.
A while back Michael told me his mother had remarried. Her home is somewhere outside Orlando. Often now I think of her, living out the life we might have had together. Always I wish her well. She hung with me as long as she could.
Helplessly I stare up at the EMT. Pain and anger have joined as one. I have a story to tell but no way to tell it, no one to share it with, and no way to know if this misunderstanding will get sorted out.
“Okay.” The medic closes his bag, stands, and turns to his partner. “Let’s get him into the ambulance before it starts to rain.”
Dean Jollay lives and writes in St. Petersburg, Florida. He earned an MFA in creative writing from Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina. His short fiction has appeared in New Plains Review, Notre Dame Review, Limestone Journal, and elsewhere. He’s currently trying to master the Argentine tango.
If you enjoyed An Absence of Time, leave a comment and let Dean know.
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