Original Short Fiction
Boston, November 1893
Of all the treasures a man could amass for his use and pleasure, Julian’s father always told him, the one he could never hold is time. His father, Cornelius, a tavern owner, had dispensed wisdom and pours of beer and whiskey to those who thirsted far more for the latter but had to partake of the former just as well. Julian had drunk it all in; the wisdom as a boy, spirits as a man, as did his brother, Augustus. The two sons had been Cornelius’s nod to the Roman emperors (his mother had balked at calling him Julius), hoping to instill in them ambitions far above their station, while reminding them that even these powerful and wise empire builders could not defeat time.
“Tempus fugit,” Cornelius had taught them. “Time flies.”
And so, when Augustus went to work at their father’s tavern, Julian gravitated to the trade that let him hold time in his hands: the swift-moving seconds, the steady minutes, the plodding assuredness of the hours. He became a watchmaker: first apprentice, then tradesman, and by the age of forty, a man with his own shop and a small apartment in the back for himself, his wife, Maude, and their son, Neil.
Good at his work, Julian breathed new life into old timepieces. He took them down to their bones, revealing stuck gears and overwound mainsprings that had snapped, then reassembled them, bit for bit. Their pulses ticked again, steady heartbeats in Julian’s ear.
Never, though, had Julian created a masterpiece. He assembled the occasional watch from new and old parts, their basic designs appealing to shopkeepers and schoolmasters. Just once he created a delicate timepiece for Maude; but she refused the gift, saying he should sell it so they would not starve. An overstatement, for their modest table never stood bare; nonetheless, he did as Maude asked, and a young lawyer in the next street bought the little watch for his wife.
By the time his temples grayed, and his dome thinned, and his son had moved to the West to find a new life, Julian burned with the desire to create something truly magnificent, his ambition hot as a coal furnace on a wintry night. He lengthened the wick in the oil lamp, giving more light to his tired eyes, and began sketching out a design. He thought of the great Roman emperor for whom he had been named as his pencil flew over the page, producing columns and scrolls. A timepiece worthy of an emperor.
Breathless, Julian stopped. Examining his sketch, he pitied himself, a little man with a grand plan. Grasping the paper at the top, he ripped it down the center, feeling the stab of truth as cleanly the daggers that had felled Julius Caesar. He dimmed the lamp, banked the stove, and left the shop for the meal awaiting him: a boiled potato and a bit of mutton as tough as the cobbler’s patch on his shoe.
Sometime in the night, in the earliest, darkest hours before sunrise, Julian dreamed. In his sleep-induced vision he saw a woman, her head and shoulders wrapped in a blue veil with a child on her lap. In her palm, she cradled a watch. As he emerged from sleep, Julian heard her instructions as clearly as if Maude had rolled over in their bed and spoken to him. “Use your gifts to make what you know.”
With his now eyes opened to the darkness of the room, Julian replayed what he had just heard as his mind gathered the dissipating vapors of the dream images. The woman. The child. The watch.
Dressing hurriedly, Julian raced into the shop still pulling on his vest over a shirt he had not completely buttoned and lit the lamp. Only when his fingers cramped from the cold did he realize he had neglected to light the stove. His hands knew what to do as he sketched the design for a pocket watch: the round face, the beveled crystal, the delicate etching.
It took a month of feverish work—an hour here, two hours there—as he kept up with the toil of his trade. By Christmas, he had finished it. His masterpiece. He showed the watch to Maude, explaining the dream; but she, while heating water to wash the clothes and darning socks that never stayed mended, gave it no more than a glance.
“So, you’ll sell it, will you?” his wife asked.
Unwilling to lie, Julian gave a noncommittal cough, as he rubbed the crystal with a soft cloth. Maude’s question, though, hung in the air like frost at solstice: the lady in the dream had only told him to make the watch, not what to do with it.
Julian died in his sleep on the eleventh of February—the first and only day he never got up to work. Black draped the windows of the shop for a week. The funeral had come and gone by the time his son, Neil, returned from California. The young man helped Maude dispose of the shop and all its contents to a watchmaker who had once been apprenticed to Julian, many years ago.
The day before Maude left with Neil for California, she visited the solicitor who had settled Julian’s meager affairs. Prepared to plead poverty, Maude drew in her cheeks to make them look sunken as she entered the stuffy little office that smelled of paraffin and moldy paper. But as soon as the solicitor saw the watch that she offered to help pay the debt, he became entranced.
“Magnificent,” he murmured, gazing into the crystal.
“It’s all I have. Nothing more. My train fare will take the last of it.” Maude waited, poised for argument, to skip town if necessary.
“Incredible,” the solicitor added, turning the watch over and rubbing his thumb across the etching on the back.
Maude scurried out the door before the solicitor came to his senses.
Phineas Fletcher had never been a religious man nor a particularly philosophical one. The practice of law had introduced him to every sort of human flaw—avarice, greed, cruelty, deceit—to counter any possible belief in the inherent goodness of people, any spark of the divine within them. But he admired art. With an untrained, appreciative eye he assessed the three-tiered cupola on the State House just as he did the old oil paintings in the houses and offices of his wealthier clientele. A favorite depicted a man in breeches and a ruffled shirt front standing stiffly, yet with rosy cheeks and a gleam in his eye that saved the portrait from complete despair. Once Phineas had climbed atop a chair to study the effect, discovering a tiny dot of white paint, a dab no bigger than a blink, and marveled at the artist’s genius.
This watch had the same effect on him, drawing him into its depths to savor the subtle embellishments that, taken together, raised this timepiece from craftsmanship to a work of art. Squinting he read the tiny letters below the VI on the face: Tempus fugit.
Phineas leaned back in his chair, the old wood and worn leather creaking loudly, a sound that made him think of his own aging bones. As he turned the watch over and over in his palm, Phineas tripped a latch, and the back swung open on tiny hinges. His mouth agape, he stared at the secret compartment inside.
From Phineas, the watch passed to his son, Phillip, on the occasion of the young man’s twenty-first birthday. In turn Phillip gave it to his daughter, Annette, to mark her wedding to a young man who was a distant relative of the watchmaker. Proudly, they displayed the timepiece on the mantle of their new home. From Annette it passed to her son, George, and then from George to his son, Donald…
Then one day, a well-meaning housekeeper tucked it into the drawer of a short armoire in the bedroom where Donald lay, body defeated by a stroke but mind still alive, as he reeled through the entirety of his life, accounting for how and when he had lived up to the legacy of the watch. At the end, Donald smiled, knowing that, while he had not done enough, he had tried and done the best he could.
Brookline, Mass., December 2020
Jeffrey had dreaded this day. He was busy, his life an upheaval of divorce and moving—something he hadn’t expected at the age of fifty-eight. Yet, here he was alone, en route to meet his sister at their family home.
The square, white house with the black shutters looked like any other on the street. The three chimneys protruding from the roof attested to the age of the structure, purchased by his parents from the estate of a distant relative. It cost a fortune to heat and a king’s ransom to maintain. With their mother now in long-term care after a debilitating stroke, the house would be listed after the holidays.
Jeffrey parked his car behind his sister’s SUV and went around to the back door. Liz met him in baggy jeans and oversized sweatshirt that Jeffrey assumed was her husband’s. Why wasn’t Doug there to help them?
As if intuiting the question, Liz explained that Doug was working. “He’s trying to keep the place afloat. Shut down for three months, only a skeleton crew now.”
“If I can help,” Jeffrey murmured.
Liz shook her head and turned to their tasks for the day, rattling off a list of what had been done and what remained to do. An antiques dealer would come later that morning to look at the old books and a few pieces of furniture.
“Fine, sounds good,” Jeffrey said, eager to get on with it.
He followed Liz upstairs and down the hallway to the spare bedroom that had collected castoffs and clutter for decades. As he opened the door, the musty smell of old paper hit Jeff’s nostrils. Dust motes danced in the light through the windows.
Liz left him to it, while she walked toward the soft pink walls of their mother’s bedroom at the other end of the hallway.
The first ten trips to the dumpster in the back of the house to disgorge stacks of crumbling newspapers and old magazines allowed Jeffrey to cut a path through the room. With each load, he thought of their father who had become a packrat later in life, his frugality turned in on itself until he could not throw anything away. Not a thrice-used teabag drying on some saucer nor ten-year-old newspapers. After their father’s death five years ago, Jeffrey had offered to clean it out, but their mother had refused. She wanted to go through all those stacks and boxes herself, she’d say again and again, but never did.
Jeffrey dipped his head, feeling the heaviness in his chest that, after a lifetime of living in his intellect, he had come to recognize as sadness. Had he known his parents at all, really seen them for who they were as people? And about Liz—did they have any real relationship at all?
He thought of the calls and voicemails Liz had left for him while he was going through his divorce: her offers of meeting for lunch or dinner. He always declined, saying he was too busy, while in truth he simply couldn’t bear talking about the dismantling of his life. After his house sold and he moved into a condo, one night his doorman had handed him a foil-wrapped casserole Liz had dropped off. “You gotta a nice sister,” the doorman had said.
Tears welled, as rare as rain in the Kalahari. Had he even thanked her?
With a sigh, Jeffrey reached for another box, this one sitting atop something: a small armoire.
The front bell rang, and Liz went to answer the door. A moment later, Jeffrey heard conversation downstairs. Hooking his face mask around his ears, he decided to give his back a break and joined them.
Liz had already led the antiques dealer to the bookshelves in the den. He caught a scrap of conversation about first editions and signed copies. Liz turned and introduced him.
The antiques dealer gave her name: “Gillian Townshend.” In her late 40s, maybe early 50s, she wore her long salt-and-pepper hair in a braid halfway down her back. A printed mask in blue, red, and purple covered the lower half of her face. The expression in her eyes seemed cheerful, friendly.
Gillian set a business card on a nearby table, and Jeffrey picked it up. He glanced out the window to a van parked at the curb, its side panel emblazoned with Maze of Time, Antiques and Collectibles.
“If you like mazes, you’ve come to the right place,” he said. “I’ve been hauling out the Minotaur’s lair all morning.”
“You haven’t been up to the attic yet.” Liz widened her eyes, and brother and sister both groaned.
Gillian rubbed her hands together. “Exactly the kind of place I love.”
Jeffrey watched Gillian walk her fingers over the spines of books, selecting some volumes, leaving others. She worked swiftly, decisively, two traits he admired.
“What about the shelves?” Gillian asked. “Are they built in?”
“Free-standing,” Liz replied. “You interested?”
“Most of my business is in antique furniture. You have some nice pieces.”
Jeffrey interrupted. “There’s something upstairs. Can you take a look?”
Leading the way, he apologized for the state of the room, but Gillian told him she’d seen worse. She pointed to a 1950s Singer sewing machine in the room. “If it works, I’d like it.”
“Done.” Jeffrey moved to the far corner of the room to where a small armoire stood. “Uncovered this today.”
Gillian’s eyes widened as she opened the double doors of the small armoire, revealing a rabbit hutch of tiny shelves and drawers. “I think this is Stickley.”
“Oh, my,” Liz breathed. “What’s it worth?”
Gillian examined every side of it. “Restored, I could probably get five thousand for it.” She turned to them. “I’ll give you twenty-five hundred.”
“Sold,” Jeffrey said. “It’s good of you to tell us what this is. We would have given it to Goodwill.”
Gillian went quickly through the rest of the house, picking the pieces she wanted, then sat at the kitchen table to do the paperwork. After she left, Liz waved the check in the air like a pennant. “Do you believe this?”
“That’s for you,” Jeffrey said. “Treat yourself and Doug to a nice vacation.”
“No, everything is split fifty-fifty,” Liz protested.
Jeffrey took his sister’s free hand in his, something he could never remember doing before in his life. “Everything except the work. You’ve done 90 percent of it for the past ten years. That check doesn’t even start to make restitution.”
December 2020, Boston
Evening descended early, the sky dimming and the streetlights illuminating by four-thirty in the afternoon. In his office, the door shut for social distance, Jeffrey reviewed a client’s liability claim. Some days he just couldn’t stand the loneliness and isolation of working from home in his condo.
His cellphone buzzed. Glancing at the screen, Jeffrey frowned at an unfamiliar number. A minute later, the voicemail chimed, but he ignored it. Then came a text from Liz. “Gave Gillian your number. She needs to speak with you.”
Jeffrey jerked back his head a little. Who the hell was Gillian? Then he recalled: the antiques dealer and the quirky name of her business: Maze of Time.
“OK, thanks.” Jeffrey thumbed back quickly.
“It’s important,” Liz replied.
Jeffrey smelled a problem. Seeing the voicemail icon on his phone, Jeffrey hit play, knowing full well what he would hear: the sewing machine didn’t work, the armoire wasn’t Stickley. Instead, Gillian’s words delivered a message both puzzling and welcome.
Blazing heaters flanked the outdoor tables of the café where people sat in their jackets, hats, and mufflers. Gillian showed up five minutes later, dressed in a red wool coat and a matching beret atop her hair pulled back on the sides and hanging loose down her back.
“Thank you for meeting me,” she said. “I know it’s a busy time of year.”
Jeffrey raised a gloved hand a few inches off the tabletop. “Not for me. You know—holidays quieter this year.” He’d never tell her the truth that the twenty-third of December was the same as any other day of the year, and Christmas would come and go with only a visit to Liz and Doug. His kids were with their mother who lived in New York; he’d see them on the twenty-seventh.
Gillian reached in her coat pocket and drew out a short, square box. Jeffrey opened the lid and the flame from the torchiere heater caught the beveled crystal and the etching around the silver case.
“One of the drawers of the armoire stuck. It happens with old furniture. The wood warps, drawers go off track.” Gillian paused. “When I finally jimmied it open, I found this.”
Jeffrey removed his gloves and felt the coldness of the metal against his warm fingers. He examined it from every angle, the pearl-colored face, the gilded Roman numerals, the tiny script below the VI: Tempus fugit.
On the back, below scrollwork entwined with an etching of a morning glory vine, Jeffrey saw a name: “Julian Winnomeyer.”
“I did a little research,” Gillian told him. “He was a watchmaker in Boston, the son of a tavern owner.”
Jeffrey raised his eyes to hers. “Winnomeyer was my grandmother’s maiden name.”
Gillian smiled. “So, a bona fide family heirloom.”
“How much?” he ventured.
Her vigorous head shake cut him off. “I bought the armoire. That treasure is yours. Liz wants you to have it. She insisted I call you and give it to you in person.”
Gillian reached over and tripped a latch. “Wait until you see inside.”
The rear of the silver case swung open, revealing a secret compartment with an inscription. Jeffrey moved the candle on their table closer and tipped the watch to catch its light. He read the words aloud: “Use your gifts to make what you know—so spoke the Blessed Mother to this humble watchmaker, Anno Domini 1893.”
Still holding the watch, Jeffrey tumbled the words in his mind, feeling the tug in his heart of what it might mean to do something with his gifts. No shortage of causes and organizations could use pro bono legal work, he told himself.
Then another thought penetrated his consciousness, like a draft through a room, chilling and warming him at the same time. The gift is in the being, not the doing.
At once, he saw his new life, emptied of all he’d known before, as a canvas on which he could now create a second act of whatever he wanted to become. The prospect terrified and enthralled him in equal parts.
Looking up, he caught Gillian’s eyes softening with a smile hidden behind her mask, though he could still see it. “Would you like to stay for dinner?” Jeffrey asked. “Unless you have somewhere else to be.”
“Yes, I’d love it,” she replied.
Slowly, Jeffrey wrapped his fingers around the watch, cradling it as so many hands before him had done. He was its latest steward along a path that had started with Julian, the first recipient of a message of hope and purpose, shared through the maze of time.
Image Credit: Patricia