Thursday, July 25, 2019

More Questions Than Answers

a short story about watches by Bill Adler


Peter Mack considered himself blessed until today. He probably wasn't the luckiest person in the world, but he knew he was an above-average, fortunate guy. He had advanced slowly but reliably at the auto insurance company where he worked, his marriage leaned toward smiles rather than frowns, his circle of friends, though small, was stalwart, and other than minor colds, he'd never been sick.

He didn’t lead the electrifying life of a Jedi Knight, but who needed that?

Seiko World War II Era Military Watch
Today his luck ended when his watch was stolen. Peter had been holding his briefcase in his left hand, and a D'agostino's bag with a half dozen eggs, spring onions, yellow and red baby tomatoes, a green pepper, and Boursin cheese with which to make omelets — tonight's dinner — in his right. A giant fist that felt like it belonged to a hurricane shoved Peter forward. He dropped his bag and briefcase, stumbled, tripped over his briefcase and fell onto the rough New York City pavement. His face skidded, painting the sidewalk red with shredding skin. His glasses snapped into two useless pieces. The only thing that kept him from breaking a rib was his heavy, down coat.

A knee pressed deep into his kidney. “Give it up, man.” The force compressed his lungs. Peter had wondered what it felt like to drown, and now he knew. “I’m taking your watch, man. Just relax and don’t be stupid.” The accent sounded vaguely Boston or Bronx or southern. At the moment, Peter’s brain partially clicked off, and he wasn’t sure of much, other than the five hundred pound knee on his back and his face on the frigid cement.

As Peter lay on the sidewalk like a butterfly in an entomologist's collection, wiry fingers unfastened his watch with great haste. Peter always took his time putting his watch on, savoring how the watch band’s leather landscape, uneven, worn, and rough from decades of wear, felt velvety to his fingertips. He used as much time as he had available in the morning to put on and set his watch. Second only to his wife, this watch was the most beautiful creation in the world.

He never wound his watch when he was wearing it because that might bend the stem. He had a leather valet — one in the bedroom so his watch slept right beside him — and one in the kitchen so he had a safe, dry place for his watch when he washed the dishes. He polished his watch daily with the softest cloth he could fine.

Peter’s dad, Harry, had given him this Seiko when he was small. The Seiko had been his most cherished possession.

~~~~~




“Mack san,” Kaito Takahashi said. “You look tired today.”

“You do, too, Takahashi. “Not energetic?”

“I am always genki, Mack san.” Takahashi lowered his eyes and shuffled his feet. A small cloud of dirt covered his boots. He pulled his canteen’s strap tight against his shirt, tapped his rifle butt and straightened. “Always genki. As you say, ‘enerzetic.’” Takahashi frowned. “But I have bad news. I will be transferred. Today I leave this place.”

“I see.” Petty Officer Harry Mack also frowned. “Why?”

“I work now at the War Language Institute. I will work there until the end of the war.”

Harry looked at the sky, then to Takahashi. He put his hand to his lips, then sucked in a deep breath.

“If I had a beer I’d toast to your promotion. Working as a POW guard was always below your skills — and your kindness. I can’t count the number of times you protected me. The bread, candy, sips of water. Every little thing you did helped keep me alive. You are sweet air in this stinking hellhole."

“You are welcome, Mack san.” Takahashi put his hands in his pockets. “I must go.”

“When?”

“Now. Ima” Takahashi smiled. “Please visit Barracks Eight. Look for the wooden support on the northeast corner. I hollowed it out on the shadow side, the side under barrack. Nobody will see it for a while, but you must go tonight because I do not know how it long it will stay unfound. Be fast.”

“Why? What is there?

“Goodbye, Mack san. You will be okay.”

Takahashi bowed, spun around and walked briskly toward the camp's entrance.

Harry waited until just past sunset when the transition from day to night would give him a precious two or three minutes to find out what Takahashi was talking about, with the smallest possible risk of being seen. Caught meant being beaten and put in a cage for a week. A week that would be followed by solitary confinement for months, possibly until the end of the war. There was a severe price to pay for being in the wrong place at any time. There was a severe price to pay for any infraction.

Takahashi knew the risk that Harry would take, too, rooting under Barracks Eight. Takahashi wouldn’t put him in jeopardy unless it was important. When Takahashi had slipped Harry candy or a piece of fruit, they shared risk, but tonight the risk would be Harry's alone.

This nameless place, a camp he had been brought to after the aircraft carrier he was serving on, the USS Hornet, fell victim to Japanese torpedoes on October 27, 1942, was the birthplace of all the terrors that ever existed in mythology. He had been transported here, wherever here was, blindfolded, his spine twisting in the back of a windowless truck for a half a day.

The guards had made it clear to Harry this would be where he would die. They were the Hydra, grisly monsters whose purpose on Earth was to terrify, torment, and devour. Except for Takahashi. Kaito Takahashi, who managed to help him, unseen and unworried. Takahashi didn’t belong in this place, but Harry was supremely grateful he was here.

A watch. Of all the gifts Takahashi could give to Harry, a watch was about the most useless thing Harry could think of. Not that he could conjure anything that would be useful, except for a one-way ticket back to Brooklyn. Even a Butterfinger or Baby Ruth would only be of short-lived benefit. Some aspirin he could squirrel away — that might come in handy. Perhaps a pistol with a single bullet for the day when the camp passed from unbearable to intolerable. Okay, he could think of a few things Takahashi could have given him that would be helpful.

But a watch? A watch would only inform Harry of how the passing hours were like daggers piercing his flesh over and over again.

Most of all, the moment he was spotted wearing a watch — about thirty seconds after strapping it on — he’d be beaten to the edge of death or beyond. Maybe that was the purpose. Maybe that was Takahashi’s gift to Harry: being put out of his misery. A relatively quick end is far preferable to eternal suffering, because with Takahashi gone, agony was Harry Mack's only future.

For as long as he was in the camp, no doors opened to any place he wanted to be. Even sleep was simply another form of torture. Ravenous mosquitoes, bedbugs, oppressive heat in the summer and frostbitten nights in winter, and screams from his fellow captors as they traveled through their nightmare landscapes, stole Harry’s sleep.

Death was now the only door Harry wanted to open.

There's a family resemblance among all Seiko watches.
Harry had few regrets. He had fought for his country. He had been a good son to his mother and father, and a thoughtful brother. “It’s time. This is what I want. I didn’t know it, but Takahashi showed me the way.” Harry scooped the watch out of the hollowed-out cavity in the bunk’s wooden support. He gently wrapped his hand around it. “It’s such a small thing, and yet it has much power, the power to end misery. Thank you, Takahashi.”

Harry examined the watch. The watch case was unscratched, a rarity for a military timepiece. “Takahashi took good care of it.” On the exterior of the six-sided steel case were the numerals 13 through 24, afternoon and evening in military time. Two sets of numerals ringed the beige dial: 1 through 12 in gold, luminescent numerals, and a smaller ring of 13 to 24 in a tiny, blood-red font. A small second hand lived where the number six would have been, and what looked like the outline of a five-sided clover was drawn under the top 12. The name of the watchmaker, Seiko, was printed above the second hand. “All in all, a handsome watch,” Harry thought. “A reliable soldier’s timepiece." The watch looked handmade, and although it was built for Japanese soldiers in a war against America, Harry admired the artistry. Harry wondered who the watchmaker was and tried to conjure his face, but could not.

Harry buckled the watch on his wrist and stood just as night’s first shadow touched him. He scooted away from Barracks Eight to the yard where prisoners were beginning to assemble for dinner. To Harry’s surprise, this was not his last meal. He ate 860 more dinners at the camp before being liberated on September 2, 1945. In all those days nobody said a word about his Seiko. Nobody noticed his watch, or if they did, they didn’t care. Seen but unseen. It was the strangest thing.


~~~~~

“Nice watch. Antique. Today’s my lucky day.” The man squeezed his fist against Peter's cheek, pressing the knuckles with so much pressure that Peter's teeth were on the verge of being squeezed out of their sockets. He sealed his eyes shut, as if that could transport him to another place. The man’s switchblade opened, whipping the air in front of it. He put the knife against Peter’s neck. “You’re going to be a good boy and not move till the count of one hundred.”

Peter grunted

“Say ‘yes’.”

“Yes.”

“Today’s my lucky day indeed. I think this one’s going to bring in more than a Rolex or one of those Packex.” He shoved his knee into Peter’s back again. “I’m gonna go now. You just stay the way you are and I won’t have to hurt you.”

The man sprinted away. Though one of Peter’s eyes was covered in blood, he watched the man run nearly headfirst into the side of the adjacent building, as if he were pulled by a powerful magnet. The man bounced back, blood dripping from his nose. He then ran in the opposite direction, street lamp beams tracking him like a theater spotlight, and tripped over the curb. He spun into recovery, slapping his palms against a blue Toyota and then continued to spin as he ran into the street. A blaring horn caught his attention. He missed being flattened by a produce truck by a fraction of a second.


~~~~~

Peter's Yakety Sax ringtone summoned him from sleep at 6:05 a.m. The voice at the other end was unapologetic. "This is Detective Dennis McCarthy. Is this Peter Mack?"

"Yes." Peter rubbed his itchy eyes. An allergy was a new phenomenon, and he made a note to see an allergist soon. He hoped he wasn’t allergic to his cat.

There's magic in Seikos', that's for sure. 
"Who's that, hun?"

"It's the police."

"Okay." Ella pulled the quilt up to her shoulders and turned to her side.

"I believe we found your watch."

"You did? That was fast. It was only stolen yesterday, and honestly I never expected to see it again." Peter sat up in bed.

"Ordinarily you wouldn't. Few stolen watches are ever recovered. Maybe one out of every 10,000.” Detective McCarthy paused. “Maybe none.”

“But you found mine? You said probably.”

“It matches the photo you gave us. It’s your watch. Never mind 'probably.’”

“That’s good news.” Peter gently shook Ella. “They found dad’s watch.”

“Who did?”

“The police did.”

“That’s great honey.” Ella sat up in bed, too. She eyed the bedside clock but quickly came to the conclusion there would be no more sleep this morning.

“How did you find the mugger?”

“He’s dead.”

“Oh.”

“A neighbor smelled gas coming from his apartment. Gas is naturally odorless, but the gas company adds a smell to help alert people to a leak. Good thing, too. That’s saved countless lives.”

“But not his.”

“No, Mr. Mack.”

Peter heard a cacophony of voices in the background. “You’re there now?”

“Yes.”

“How does somebody die of gas poisoning?”

“Asphyxiation. The heater in his apartment is broken. This place is like a freezer.”  Without heat, a New York apartment in February quickly becomes uninhabitable. “So he must have turned the oven on to warm it up. People do that sometimes. It’s stupid, but they do it. Most of the time, there’s no problem. But not for this guy.”

“I see.”

“May I collect my watch?”

“Seeing how there’s not going to be a trial or anything, yeah, sure.” McCarthy rattled off the address.

“Got it. Thanks.”

“Oh. One thing.”

“Yes.”

“Your watch isn’t electric, is it?”

“Definitely not. Why do you ask?”

“When I touched the watch, I got a small shock.”

“Static electricity” Peter offered. “I’m sure that’s what it was.”

“So did everyone else who touched it. Static electricity, once discharged, doesn’t come back, unless there’s been like, you know, rubbing feet against a rug. I just wanted to know if it was quartz or something. It says ‘Seiko’ so I thought there’s a battery inside. Might have been dangerous if there was a short circuit or loose wire. But nevermind. Static electricity, like you said. Just come on by.”

Peter stuck his head out the window of his sixth-floor apartment. Street light beams jumped from lamp to lamp, illuminating the path from his apartment to the address Detective McCarthy gave him.


Thanks to Ashley Jenkins for her feedback and edits.

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