Allie Owen’s Watch-Me wall clock was robin-egg blue before her fiancé smashed it with a boot. True, Kai patched the clock back together so the hands kept on ticking, but they stuck on one time only, Cinco. Kai rushed from the room anytime he remembered that word. Cinco, the Mexican police called it, Cinco de la tarde.
To be fair, the Watch-Me tried its best to keep moving, since Allie saved it from a second-hand store in Chicago’s Old Town and toted it home to her and Kai’s apartment. “From now on,” she announced to the clock, “you’ll be chiming for us every anniversary.” The clock hung above an azure toaster, coveted because she said the color presaged their first-born, to be swaddled in baby-blue. “The sooner the better,” she added.
Kai got used to Allie’s quick decisions. She acted in the same abrupt way the wall clock’s hands quit moving, influenced by events nobody predicted. Those events led to Kai’s outbursts. He left the clock on the wall but hurled objects at it in futility.
Life eventually stood still for Kai, where it once moved fast. For Allie, too. She was the great-great granddaughter of a Cape Town Dutchman and his teenage milkmaid Essyllt, who left Wales in the early 1900s for the Cape Province. Later Essyllt fled to America when the Dutchman got her pregnant then kicked her off his farm. Family legends said she stowed away on both her ocean voyages and carried lucky charms. Her good fortune lay in being “one with water,” relatives claimed. Not bad for a girl crossing vast seas alone and once carrying a child.
Like Essyllt long before her, Allie had curly red hair and freckles. Her smile lit up dreary places, which described her birthplace to a tee. It was nearly 300 miles south of Chicago and featured a few apple orchards among a universe of slag heaps and coal mines. Ebony Alley, her hometown, bowed under the weight of failing coal mines. Down the length of Main Street ran a gaping sinkhole. The Yawn, as it got to be known, filled up with water, but ducks and geese flew over it, never tempted by the water’s darkish hue. The Highway Department diverted vehicles around The Yawn, leading the Chamber of Commerce to boast of America’s first-ever traffic roundabout.
Opposite the crevice, Allie’s parents operated an Easy-Go food mart. Their ancestors had been miners in Wales long before Essyllt’s day, so the Owens were at home in this hardscrabble world, until Mr. Owen opted for small business. As a child, Allie learned to swim in the holes near town. Later she caught on as a life guard at Giant County’s only swimming pool.
Kai and his family, the Monicals, left Pennsylvania’s anthracite fields for Giant County when his dad became manager at Green Mountain Carbon, with the task of rescuing the business. Mrs. Monical died of cancer when Kai was a child. Because of sympathy for Mr. Monical and his motherless son, Kai was a hit in Ebony Alley. Girls on every rung of the popularity chart eyed him, but all lacked Allie’s spontaneity or winning smile.
Even so, it was a frosty October night their sophomore year in high school before she grabbed Kai’s attention. Reeling from chugs of spiked cider on a Homecoming hayride, Kai lunged for a curvy blonde but plopped down in Allie’s lap. Her sonorous laugh and his delight at her not-so-secret tug at his coat sleeve made them a hit from the get-go. Allie was stone sober and Kai tipsy, but they felt the tenderness of touching with equal delight. They exchanged a flurry of stolen kisses, as snowflakes cavorted around them and the draft horses neighed in delight.
For a town mired in fossil-fuel gloom, it was a revelation how Allie plucked Kai out of the air, and they made their way through senior high with the same light touch. They couldn’t have said where they were heading, but it was somewhere higher and better. They relished a bond their classmates couldn’t emulate or cleave in two. Nor could the Ebony Alley townsfolk discover anything to harp on. Allie and Kai had their own ways. No sock hops or raves. No pep rallies before hoops tourneys either. They smooched in stairways between classes and took college prep English fourth hour, after which they skipped off to Easy-Go for snacks Allie’s mother offered up. On summery days, they munched on MacIntoshes and baloney-on-Bunny Bread sandwiches while lazing in sight of the town’s towering maples.
“An idyll in coal tar,” Kai called their lunches and chuckled. At the same time, he began wondering how devoted his father was to the doughty miners whose work place he ran. On dark days, men without work slouched in back streets or hung out on street corners. “Is this service or servitude?” Kai asked about his father’s company.
Noon hour allowed little time for serious smooching. Allie brushed back her rebellious curls while waiting for Kai to peel the rinds off his Easy-Go lunch meat. She smothered it with catchup. In his gusto, he let the condiments drip down his chin. Allie found a napkin and wiped his face, then dabbed stubborn specks from his lip.
“What next, my dear?” she asked. With a smiling hint, she repeated her question.
Kai grew ardent and used his catchup-free hand to rearrange her hair. “When?” he asked in pretended surprise. “You know we’ve got class.” He kissed her lightly, like a feather brushing her lips.
Allie whispered about skinny-dipping, but it was broad daylight and Kai a poor swimmer. So she turned to teasing frivolity. “Know what I like most about you?” she asked. Getting no reply, she pulled back in feigned irritation, but answered her own question. “You know what, you’re always ready for a dare.”
“That new house they’re building down the road?” she replied and nodded eagerly, meaning, yes, going there was a synonym for skipping school. “Wanna go, but we’ll see the saw mill first?”
To Kai, sorting timber at Sayer’s Sawyers or rooting around in a half-built house sounded as unromantic as a girl pulling him down by his sleeve in a tangle of hayriding bodies, yet those were the kinds of places their hijinks started. As for Sayer’s Sawyers, they’d been there before, to smooch. Cuddling among the wood chippings led to cutting up discarded planks. Strangely, that mischief created excitement and purpose in a community bereft of both.
Townies expected Allie and Kai to settle down after graduation and enter the mines. Nothing else was left but “beating this pop stand in a big rush,” as Kai said. They’d never thought their choices through, but felt compelled to take something tangible with them from Ebony Alley if and when they left. It needed to be a token of good times. If no gold glittered before them, why not wood? They stopped at the saw mill, but found nothing.
“Any where else?” Kai asked.
“Yeah, you forgot, the construction site I mentioned?”
Allie motioned to the far end of town, where an Ebony Alley mining engineer was building his dream bungalow. They circled The Yawn and then took a path down to the water. Wavelets splashed here and there but caught no reflection, only dead leaves.
“How deep?” Allie asked.
“Dunno. Dad sent his assistant to plumb the depths once. Found nothing.”
“There has to be a bottom. No Swimming. See that?” she replied, pointing to a sign. “Wanna try?”
Kai dipped his toes while Allie splashed her feet so a few exploding droplets made an abstract, chaotic pattern on his pants. Other drops sprinkled his face, so she took out a handkerchief. As she dabbed his face again, nothing seemed different, but their eyes met and a surprising jolt conjoined them. Love and trust wed them in that unlikely sinkhole.
Later at the building site, they loosened a canvas from the stacked lumber. Some boards were moist, so the grain patterns created visual effects. Kai remembered how knots in the wood, if removed right, brought good luck. Still in the afterglow of their sudden bonding, the youngsters lazed atop the dry boards. Afternoon cirrus floated overhead as they dreamed together.
Tinkering with usable wood could mean breaking and entering, so they roused themselves. Knots were likely to fall out of the boards the drier the wood became, but Kai removed some loose ones. Others he hammered out, which left nicks in the wood. With a few he used a trick from shop class. Kai sawed through those knots until they broke free.
Allie plucked up the darkest in color. She loaded them in a gunny sack and walked Kai back to her parents’. Mid-afternoon was on them when they returned for classes. They’d fallen in love for real and gained a gunny sack of tree knots that spoke of good luck, while the cellulose lasted.
“Don’t you feel free like Huck Finn or somebody?” Allie asked with a giggle.
“Beyond free, we surrendered to the unknowable,” Kai declared. He wondered where those words came from and why his seriousness. He felt free, like Allie said, but also knew he was bonded to her forever.
“You won’t forget The Yawn?” he asked.
Coquettishly she spun away, but turned back for a hug.
Full summer came. Allie and Kai graduated and left for Mumford, a lively state university, where their devotion blossomed despite the unexpected. For the first time since plopping down together on the hayride, they felt separated. Their dorms were on opposite ends of campus. They registered for the same courses but got professors who had different answers to similar questions. Allie and Kai sifted through lectures on diversity without finding any unity, except that they were living in hard times.
Campus teemed with students seeking answers more personal than theirs, like understanding where life was taking them, or finding a special someone. Allie and Kai shared time with peers who needed what they themselves already had, a partner. Higher ed’s attempts to help students discover new molds did little to break bonds between Allie and Kai.
“We major in the same stuff and take similar courses, yet never see each other,” Kai complained.
“All we’ve got’s jungle telegraph,” Allie joked.
Yet meet they must. They hung out in coffee shops and the Library. In them, friends recognized that the twain had met. Allie, a humble grocer’s daughter, and Kai, the corporate manager’s son, were a couple, if not against socio-economic strictures, then contrary to expectations.
For senior year, they moved to a house off-campus. Already there were Noah, a Marxist Jew from Brooklyn, and Sarah, a dark Sephardic beauty, whose family came from even farther away. “Centuries ago they tried kicking us Jews out of Spain, but my family became Catholics and stayed,” Sarah explained. “Now, this time, we left Iberia. We’re from Seville, but my big brother came here, to Notre Dame. We followed him. You know, South Bend?”
Noah and Sarah found each other in North America. They wasted no time becoming a couple. “We’re Jews without money, becoming adults. Getting there, one step forward for every two backward,” Noah joked.
They paid bills and bought groceries together. Such duties offered a foretaste of the future. Allie found work hostessing at a swanky restaurant, while Kai, leaning toward Law, clerked part-time at a para-legal office.
Allie’s history emerged from a Women’s course called Hussies, Harems, and Housewives. She examined Essyllt’s South African indenture and discovered her great-great grandma’s struggle to break milkmaid bondage and flee Cape Town. The son Essyllt bore gave rise to the Owen family in Giant County.
By the same token, Kai’s prof in American Labor assigned texts on the AFL-CIO’s John L. Lewis, whose defense of coal miners during the 1940s struck a chord. Kai found reports on the Union leader’s visits to Ebony Alley and brought home stories of Labor organizers who, even if Republican, championed the rights of wage earners present-day conservatives were waging class warfare against.
Over bottles of sweet Pedro Ximénez wine, Kai sat till the wee hours one wintry night sharing his findings with Allie, Noah, and Sarah.
“Corporate domination and injustice. That’s what folks in Ebony Alley’ve lived with,” Kai argued. “Folks’ve sacrificed for the Workers’ cause, their cause. The very powers that hire them deny them the right to organize. The only option is staying thralls or fleeing to a high-tech world with no skills. It’s like your milkmaid,” he said to Allie, “and miners in Ebony Alley. Whadda they do?”
“What’s important to me,” added Noah, “is problems of greater magnitude. The real question’s existential troubles. Put simply, how or why do we tolerate the horrendous junk society sticks us with?”
“We’re born to it,” Sarah interjected. “A few geniuses rise from the muck. The rest tolerate abominable stuff with no thought.”
“Like German Jews in the 1930s, they saw what was coming?” Noah asked.
“But they were hemmed in,” Sarah added. “Thirty million people couldn’t pick up and leave Germany. Only the rich.”
The four sipped their Ximénez in silence. Sarah gave them refills. Allie put her glass down with a thud, so it left a dark stain. “So it was in commoners’ nature to be passive?” she asked flashing a disturbed look.
“The poor are always with us?” Kai responded. He nodded in agreement with Sarah. “They don’t lack gray matter. Education’s missing. That’s all.”
“My Essyllt could barely read or write, but she figured things out. She escaped, pregnant and all,” Allie added. She and Kai, who’d known no quarrels, stared daggers at each other, and debated with their friends to the wee hours.
“What makes us act, willpower or learned response?” Noah asked with a sigh.
While questions about life hung in the air, Allie leaned toward teaching, “helping kids see their possibilities.” Kai set his sights on the Bar. The very week they said their graduation goodbyes to Mumford, Kai got accepted to Law School in Chicago while Allie found a teaching job in Cook County. Nature vs. nurture remained the undecided issue between them. Late nights with dark Ximéniz didn’t settle it, but they swore between themselves to join the struggle for social justice, the something higher and better they’d searched for.
Ahead lay a last summer in Ebony Alley. As Allie packed, she emptied her gunny sack and gave Noah and Sarah a bundle of wood knots she’d carved like rabbit’s feet. “They’re for whenever,” she said.
Sarah explained Sephardic amulets were never made of wood, but she guessed knots made good charms anyway. She’d polish them for storms ahead. “There’s lots to be wary of,” she said with a wink. “We Sephards carry charms on our body or in dark pockets, pockets are our purse.”
June in Ebony Alley turned breezy. Coal dust and mist blew away by mid-morning, so Allie and Kai followed their parents for a picnic one Sunday. Other days the lovebirds went picnicking. They frolicked far from town like before.
Weeks drifted by. Kai delayed popping the question, till Allie pressed the issue at midsummer. With a family diamond passed on from Essyllt, who herself was never betrothed, Allie accepted Kai’s proposal with a Welsh ie for yes.
“Fitting,” Kai’s father assured him, “Your woman comes from the mines. Folks that drill into deep, dark seams carry self-trust in their veins.”
“Marriage is like the miner’s lot, these are shackles no man sheds with ease,” Mr. Owen said with a wink.
Allie wore Kai’s ring, though it belonged in her family. No one spoke of that, for their minds turned to the dog-days. As life slowed to a crawl, temps inched steadily toward a hundred. One afternoon the couple were on a park bench by TheYawn. Lining the opposite bank were businesses, where honking horns disturbed the stillness. A path led down to water’s edge where wobbly pontoons floated on oil barrels.
“Remember what I told you once?” Allie asked.
“One day, just before school was out. How you never refused a dare.”
Kai tilted his head with unease. “You asked if I’d remember The Yawn. Water, I don’t take to it.”
“But your dad wanted to measure the depth. What’d he find?”
Allie’s freckles darkened. Kai looked across at her in hesitation until she reached out. He took her hand.
“Can we swim it?” Allie asked.
“Swim or sink?”
“Whadda you think’s at the bottom?”
“Old bath tubs? Dead dinosaurs? Anything that won’t float. I know you have a need, to do something no one else takes a chance on,” he said.
Kai removed his shoes. On an impulse unlike him, he pulled her into the brackish slough. Allie screamed, then went under. Quickly she bobbed to the surface while kicking off her flip-flops.
“Cool,” she exclaimed as dragonflies circled above. The two tiptoed along the underwater stones at the edge. As their shorts soaked, the going felt slower. Kai grasped the stony outcroppings. Allie urged him farther out.
“Wanna see what’s deep down?”
Allie took a breath and dived. Her legs stuck straight up then disappeared like a sea creature seeking the depths. Kai watched the water settle, dark and drear. Then she popped up and looked merrily his way.
“What’d you find?”
“No dinos. Come on in!”
He slipped off the narrow ledge. Allie reached the cliff wall before she saw him floundering. He extended his arms skyward.
Reading panic, Allie circled to his back. She put her arms under his. Slowly she swam back to the ledge with him in tow. Finding handholds in the rock face, he inched his way to the foot path. Allie swam back out for her flip flops.
Smiling, she bent down. “Instead it was almost you,” she said.
“Yeah,” he responded, “I nearly became the first.”
“To see the bottom?”
“To drown. Good you’re a lifeguard.”
“You know what they say, one with water.”
“You saved my life.”
“You are my life,” she whispered.
Evening was on them when they left for town. Their talk drifted to memories of frolicking in the orchards and coal dust of the valley as well as the listless unemployed and directionless schoolmates they hoped to help.
Allie fumbled in her shoulder bag for the remaining good-luck knots. “We still got our insurance from Essyllt,” she said. As they went in for dinner, he smiled when she showed the ring to her folks yet again.
They were going on twenty-five now. At their digs in Chicago’s west suburbs, they installed IKEA furniture. Allie’s wall clock and toaster completed the kitchen. Gazing out at the well-manicured Northern lawns, she talked of clear streams bubbling and dancing under midday’s upturned bowl.
“Cinco? Cinco de la tarde?” the Mazatlan policeman asked Kai, who shifted from foot to foot in the hot sand of Playa las Brujas. He accepted a typed sheet from the officer, who waited as Kai let it hang limply. “Usted es el novio, no? Firmelo aqui.”
Sephardic Sarah touched Kai’s arm gently. “He says to sign it. Five o’clock. That’s the time, right? It’s for their report.”
Kai glanced at Sarah then at the Pacific, whose roar seemed weary of its own dull pounding.
“Just give her name and address,” Sarah said. “I’ll do the rest.”
Those words were what Kai remembered. Not where he and Noah and Sarah went afterward. Or how they found their way in the dark. Or whether he slept that night. Only much later did it come to him, how he and Allie met up with Noah and Sarah in July after their first year in Chicago and drove Noah’s Mitsubishi to Mexico, found a hotel on the beach, and Allie drowned.
Kai sat in their Chicago kitchen and stared at the insistent wall clock. That continued for weeks, but he never remembered if the hands had already stopped at five when he returned from Mexico or the boot he threw at it did the trick. But cinco it was. Allie’s parents had long since laid her to rest in Ebony Alley, and Kai was back at the university, where he acted what folks called normal. He stopped at the grocery mart, picked up when the iPhone rang, used Netflix. That stuff. He guarded Allie’s engagement ring, continued Law studies, and took exams. Noah and Sarah popped in now and then. They wanted him to ditch the apartment, but he stayed. It was theirs, Allie’s and his, wall clock and toaster included. Occasionally, friends looked in and they had a beer and watched some game on TV.
When he felt loneliest or awoke at dawn swaddled in doom, a hand tugged at his sleeve. Allie appeared carrying coal dust and turned it to balm. Eventually she faded from his nightmares and was replaced by gales off Lake Michigan. Roaring through city and suburbs, they drove him ever deeper into solitude. One day he cursed, slung his steel-capped boot, and crushed her clock. Repulsed, the big hand bounced back to five and kept ticking, memorializing the moment he watched Allie die.
In time, Kai remembered everything. They’d finished a school year. Beginning Law, he felt, demanded attention to detail and sharp insights, which wore him down, and Social Studies, Allie realized, involved keeping class discipline, which her teenagers found the opposite of freedom. For late summer the two planned a wedding, after a fun vacation. They called Noah and Sarah and decided on Mexico because Sarah knew Spanish and Allie loved adventure. Mazatlan’s sandy shores shone brightly.
“Yes, the blue of Capricorn,” Kai said remembering a book of the same title.
“The Beach,” Noah rhapsodized.
“We’ll love it!” Kai exclaimed to the ladies.
So it was. Noah offered his car. Kai paid gas. Sarah and Allie promised lunches.
“Guys up front, ladies back,” Noah jested.
They took turns driving.
The Great Plains. Arizona. South of Tucson they found a guest house and marveled at the night sky.
“Stars!” Sarah exclaimed. “My folks say their ancestors saw to eternity from the hills of Alpujarra.”
“Andalusia!” Noah said enthusiastically. “No such sights in South Bend?”
Sonora’s night sky was equally heavenly, but not its sun. First they rode with windows down and bare arms exposed. They wised up and used the AC, but the sun scorched them through closed windows.
“Forty-five C,” Sarah reported after hearing a weather forecast. “En la sombra.”
“But where’s the sombra?” Noah lamented.
Towering cacti paraded by as the road wound in and out of hilly passes. In Hermasillo, spikes on the road punctured a front tire. A filling station handled it. “They don’t replace tires,” Sarah reported. “Only patch ‘em.” They glimpsed the Pacific at Guaymas but skirted the city in falling darkness.
Allie was driving when they crossed into Sinaloa and scattered a flock of chickens, killing one or two. Sarah carried on an animated bargaining session with the farmer. They paid a few pesos and continued, this time with Sarah taking the wheel and refusing to speak.
“We shoulda studied for this,” Noah moaned. He proved the least adaptable, fretting about the toll searing temps took on the car. Sarah and Kai were the troopers, Allie her daring self. They were slouched in their seats when the first glimpse of Playa las Brujas popped up. Kai never remembered who was driving, only how they piled out after stopping.
“Sea gulls shriek as Gringos collapse,” Noah moaned.
They waded to the water and freshened up. Kai recalled their hotel and the toasts Noah and Sarah gave them. Then came his and Allie’s walk along the beach. There were hills in the distance sinking into shadow. They noticed rip current warnings, which Allie took as a dare. She knew about depths. Kai knew what he read. You swim sideways to the flow; nobody out-strokes a tide. Allie headed straight out. He swam parallel to the beach. Between waves he saw the hotel skyline. He squinted at sunlight on the Pacific.
Back on the beach, he waited for Allie, but she flailed and rose, flailed and rose. Kai sprinted to the water trying to make his way out or find help.
He stood waist deep. Called out. Waited. He had no memory who sounded the final alarm. Maybe him? Or a beachcomber standing in the sand?
The police found Allie. Her curls wet, fingers cramped, flip flops drying in the sand. In her pocket, Kai found the hacked knots, soaked in brine. He wondered about her last thoughts. Like an everlasting cliché, sunlight reflected eerily off the waves until they broke up on the beach and sank into the sand.
Aside from patched-up tires, Noah’s Mitsubishi alone escaped unscathed. Noah and Sarah drove it home. In Ebony Alley, Kai and Allie’s parents opened her casket. Light rain lessened the summer heat at her funeral. Mr. Monical drained The Yawn for a park in her memory.
Back in Chicago, Kai understood better. His knowledge of the coal miners’ bondage went deeper than Allie’s, but her drive to make things happen exceeded his. Allie would’ve moved on after him, he knew that. She wasn’t Essyllt’s kin for nothing.
On a visit, Noah and Sarah cast wondering glances around Kai’s apartment. They changed blinds to let more light in.
“Weeks add up,” Noah mused.
“I failed,” Kai lamented.
Noah and Sarah heard the refrain other times.
“She saved me once.”
Noah fumbled for words. “You know, pal, things happen to people.”
Before Christmas, Noah and Sarah announced they were expecting and the Mitsubishi went kaput. They talked of the future.
Kai gave them a hug.
“Feliz Navidad,” Sarah responded and handed him a tiny present. “It’s a girl. We’ll name her Allie.”
New Year’s was progressing like any other tired Tuesday when the wall clock gave a frantic whirr and the ticking stopped. Kai remembered Allie buying it. Them making love. Him finding their tree knots. When the phone sounded, Kai nearly didn’t answer.
“No, no new Allie yet. We’ll let you know,” Noah reported.
Kai let their conversation hang.
“The Christmas present. You open it yet?”
Kai pressed End.
That evening he dug their present from the cupboard and found a Double A battery and a note: Nueva bateria. Vida nueva.
Kai lay awake that night. He wondered if Allie guessed her fate or chose it. He figured many women had brave and daring Essyllts to test themselves against. Most came out ahead. He couldn’t say why Allie didn’t.
Early next morning he dusted the wall clock and yanked the tape off, revealing the Watch-Me label. He stuffed the battery in place. As for a new time piece, he’d get one, someday, and find a different apartment, maybe. About himself, Kai figured he’d pass the Bar and help the poor. Classes started again that same day and he went.
Roger McKnight is from small-town America; he studied at universities in Illinois and Minnesota. His youthful love was baseball, but a lack of sporting talent led him to teaching and studying English literature instead. Roger has lived and worked in Chicago, Sweden, Puerto Rico, and Minnesota. He is presently working on a novel on racial dissonance in 20th-century middle-class America.
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