Frank was alone in the house, washing out his coffee mug over the sink. It was his morning routine, washing the mug before he left. Frank and Susan kept their kitchen spotless, everything it its orderly place. The couple’s youngest child had moved out a few years prior, and with his departure, the two of them had settled without notice into this regime of cleanliness. Even the soft summer morning light that drifted through the windows seemed to mingle only sparingly with what little dust hung in the air.
It was ten in the morning. Susan had already left for her job as a nurse. Most mornings, Frank would have left over two hours ago for the museum, where he served as Director of Research and Collections, despite it being a Saturday.
Today, however, he was scheduled to meet with an older woman some two hours south of town. This woman had contacted the museum a week prior, offering to donate what she claimed to be an antique shelf clock, an original of renowned early 19th century clock maker Aaron Williard, for the museum’s exhibition on early American technology. He dried out his mug and placed it in the cupboard and grabbed his suitcase.
Frank navigated out from the suburbs of his ranch and briefly through the downtown of the museum’s city before merging onto the interstate, driving in silence the entire time. An early Saturday morning in late July boded well for light traffic, and Frank found himself on nearly empty stretches of forgotten highway. The asphalt flowed off into the distance, never varying angle as it outlined massive farm fields full of corn and hay. After another hour, the highway slowly dipped and veered to the right, and Franked pulled off at his exit.
The town he was headed for was too small to make it onto printed maps, but Frank still found himself in the midst of the same fast food restaurants and gas stations, video rentals and convenience stores, as every town. He made his way past them onto a more rural road before finally locating the address of the lady who had contacted him. The house was a large colonial in a state of disrepair, with unkempt bushes shielding its aged white siding. Children’s toys and lawn ornaments were scattered at random throughout the dandelions that dotted the front yard. He parked his car at the front of the gravel driveway, made his way to the entrance, and rang the doorbell.
Frank could hear some sort of commotion inside, and when an older woman, cigarette hanging from her mouth, opened the door, he struggled not to trip over four or five children running through the living room.
“You must be Mrs. Adams,” Frank said after a moment, flustered by the children.
“Oh, Mr. Stewart, come in, come in; I’ve got the clock—” She turned and yelled at the children to be quiet. “They’re my daughter’s kids. She’s in the hospital right now,” she said, exaggerating her face as she whispered the last sentence. Frank nodded, mirroring her facial expression, unsure of what to say. Acquisitions were his least favorite part of the job, for this exact reason, and at that moment he wished he was instead back at the museum, tucked deep in the archives, alone.
“The clock; how did you acquire it?” He asked to change the subject, as another child ran past the entrance and started banging the keys on a dusty, out of tune piano.
“Oh, it’s right this way. A long time family heirloom, I think.” She led Frank up the staircase, his hands sticking to the dark resin of dirt that lined the handrail. “Over here”, she said at the top of the stairs, as she led him into a small bedroom.
“My late husband,” Mrs. Adams sighed as she passed a bedside table. She bent over and fondly cradled a faded sepia-toned picture. “This was his room. He passed away—what? eight or nine years ago? Before everything started to go crazy. I live here by myself now, except with the children sometimes. Anyway, it’s over here”. Frank quietly stood a couple of feet behind her as she shared these details. Mrs. Adams rested the picture back onto the table and made her way around the bed, placing her hand on it balance.
On the far side of the bed she opened a closet, revealing a long, mostly empty walk-in. “Over here.” She pulled a threadbare cord and an unprotected lightbulb sputtered for a few seconds before turning on.
At the end of the closet sat a small mahogany clock, about three feet high, its base sinking into the thick shag carpet. Frank walked over and squatted down, examining it. The floral painting that surrounded the clock’s face was still in good condition, as was the small golden eagle perched atop the clock. Directly under the face, in gold set in a red circle, was Aaron Williard’s autograph. The clock’s long spindly hands pointed to stark black roman numerals set against a white background.
“It actually still runs,” Mrs. Adams said, “but the time is incorrect. I don’t know how to change it.” One of the children dashed into the room and started tugging on her skirt, shouting “gra’mama! gra’mama!” before Mrs. Adams shooed her away. “Can’t you see I’m busy talking to the man?” She asked the child.
Frank was examining the back of the clock with a small pocket flashlight and a magnifying glass. In his hands, Frank could instinctively feel the history in the thing. Momentarily lost in thought, he gazed at the clock, admiring the rich color of its wood and the details of its painting. The inner mechanisms were, true to Mrs. Adam’s pronouncement, all in working order. “This is a remarkable clock, still in surprisingly good condition. And it is, in fact, a Williard original,” he said, standing up. “In fact, I think the museum would be interested in purchasing the clock outright, as opposed to simply renting it, if you would be so inclined. I am, of course, willing to offer an appropriate compensation.”
Mrs. Washington straightened up and thought about the offer for a moment, before quietly agreeing, speaking her words as if cut off in the middle of a sentence. “Yes, that is what I was hoping. Yes.”
“I do believe, judging by the condition, that I could offer perhaps three thousand dollars for the clock, if that is acceptable.” Frank said, standing up. He went out to his car and retrieved his suitcase, along with an oversized box which split open in the middle and was filled with custom-made foam to transport the clock.
Mrs. Adams was sitting at her kitchen table, and Frank could see the children running around in the back yard as he sat down across from her. He removed the papers from his suitcase and placed them onto the faded linoleum surface. Off to the side of the table sat an empty napkin holder, grown dirty and worn with age, and a small dish of off-brand hard candy.
“Where do you need me to sign?” Mrs. Adams asked. Frank pointed out the lines and asked who he should make the check out to. Later, when he came down the stairs, delicately carrying the clock in its custom case, he looked into the kitchen and said farewell to Mrs. Adams, who sitting across from the check.
“Thank you, sir,” she replied, looking up. “I’ll show you out to the door.”
“Thank you,” Frank replied. “The clock should be going on display in a couple weeks. Have a good afternoon,” he said, smiling.
Frank’s eyes blurred over miles of corn and exit ramp fast food signs during his drive back. For most of his trip, the highway remained almost completely empty. Frank drove in silence with the clock secured in the back of the car. His mind drifted, tracing a history for the clock, of the wealthy pioneer ancestors who first settled in the state, with a clock that would survive wars, wars, new houses, new generations. These things formed no trend or culture nor could they even be described as events, just chance movement, countless variables colliding each second. In the summer heat arose an air of inevitability in Frank, a laughable foolishness at people who had been unable to foresee all of history before it happened, unable to foresee the invention of the transistor or the assassination of John Kennedy or the growth of sprawling suburbs; all moments somehow connected, working together to put this exact clock in the backseat of this exact car as Frank drove.
Up a couple hundred feet ahead was some sort of trailer, attached to a pick-up truck. Besides it, the road was empty. As Frank gained on it, he saw that it was a trailer for transporting horses, with compact stables inside. He cruised a little distance behind it.
Suddenly, the truck pulling the horses swerved drastically off to the right, and Frank watched what looked like a raccoon dart across the road. The truck had veered too far, and it tumbled down into the ditch at the side of the highway. Next to the highway was a lumber yard, and the truck smashed head-on into a pile of logs, barely disturbing them before coming to a rest. The horse’s trailer swung around on its axel, which sent its rear door swinging open, the two colliding with the sound of metal striking metal.
Frank slowed his car and came to a stop alongside the wreck. He got out and walked over to the cab of the truck, where he found the windshield broken and the dashboard covered in blood. Frank opened the truck’s door and the body of an elderly man flopped out, his mangled head falling into Frank’s arms as he involuntarily caught it. In shock, he let it drop to the dirt at his feet, with the man’s head pulling the rest of his body down with him. On the ground, blood continued to pour from a wound somewhere on his head. It pooled at Frank’s feet, sawdust from the lumber yard floating lazily within it.
Frank stepped away from the man and raised his head, turning it back to the road. No cars were in sight. Past the north-bound lane, the divider strip, and the opposite side of the freeway, tall trees stood peacefully, the late sun making their leaves almost fluorescent.
A neigh from one of the horses brought Frank out from the shock of random death, and he stumbled to the back of the trailer. It was empty; its door hung open, limp. The horses, three of them, were sprinting blind around the lumber yard, leaping over stacked sections of tree. Without consciously registering his actions, Frank began running after them, pulling made-up names out of the sky and yelling them at the horses. “George! James! Andrew!” He shouted names at random, and then he stopped and pointed at the trailer, demanding the horses return to it. Instead, the horses continued their nervous prancing, impervious to Frank. Against the setting light, the horses appeared like moving sunspots, floaters in the eye, creations of the mind and not of reality. Then Frank, running in his agony, tripped over a stray log, landing face-down and sending a cloud of gentle sawdust cartwheeling into the air.
Samuel Huryn attends the Ohio State University. He would like to acknowledge John Fahey’s sixth album as the source of this story’s title.