The Watchmaker

As published by 99 Pine Street Literary Magazine in February 2017:

The old man peers into the case. “I worked on this watch.” He says it ‘vorked on this vatch’. He screws the loupe from his eye. “A good timepiece. Your grandfather’s? He is still living?”

The fusty workspace, redolent of watch oil, is smaller than the one Henry visited with Granddad, at street level on Main Street, its sign in Gothic gilt letters: D.A. Gordon, Watchmaker. This is in a tired building in a decaying downtown block, neighbored by social-service providers, lawyers, tax preparers, a home-loan agency, a cell phone shop. Like all clients and customers, Henry announced himself on an intercom outside the street door to be buzzed in. The plain-box elevator, as slow as time passing, deposited him in a dim sixth floor hallway. He found the door, the name in smaller Gothic letters, plain black on a frosted-glass window with mesh reinforcement.

“Yes, my grandfather’s. He died last year. I came here with him at least a dozen years ago. No, more.”

Granddad had called it a conductor’s watch: an Admiral, nearly two inches wide, open-faced, filigreed silver case and gold numerals, initials THM engraved on the back. Every railroad conductor had one, he said, checking trains’ progress by drawing watches from vest pockets, fob chains looped through vest buttonholes and anchored by tchotchkes in opposite pockets.

In Henry’s early teens, Granddad wore it – an idiosyncrasy — in his jacket breast pocket, the chain looped through a lapel buttonhole. In Grand Central Station, he would look up to check it against the great stationhouse clock. Later, after twice lengthening the chain and finally unable to bring the watch into focus, he gave it up.

The watchmaker screws the loupe back in. “Yes, I see that. Twenty-two years. 1989. A simple cleaning.”  His face is as deeply lined as a Dürer etching. The bushy Harpo Marx hair Henry remembers is thin now, bone-white: Einstein or a Harry Potter wizard.

Henry was in his teens when Granddad brought him downtown to visit Mr. Gordon. Maybe the watch just handed across the cluttered counter, each visit scrupulously engraved inside the case in Lilliputian characters, a chronographic health history.

“You wear a wristwatch?” The old man’s gimlet eyes have noticed the white on Henry’s suntanned wrist.

“I’m embarrassed. A digital.” He has it in his pocket. It shifts time zones seamlessly when he visits Grandma in California. It has an alarm, stopwatch, timer.

“Everyone has them now. But you use this sometimes?”

“Now and then in Granddad’s memory. I might take it to visit Grandma next month. She’d like seeing it. But it’s stopped running. Didn’t keep exact time when it was working.”

“Of course. Even the best lost or gained a few seconds. A small price for wearing such intricate craftsmanship.” The old man makes it seem a virtue to keep up with neither the crowd nor the precise time. He peers again, pries the back with a tiny screwdriver, cups the works in the palm of his hand. “Mmm-hmm.”

Henry remembers a plate glass window displaying unusual jewelry: earrings of semi-precious stones, one-of-a-kind artisan bracelets. Passersby would stop to admire, Granddad said; then, looking deeper into the shop, see the watchmaker and remember where to come when a watch needed repair. The jewelry helped pay the rent for a man who wanted nothing more than to mend clocks and watches.

Granddad occasionally bought something for Grandma. Walk-ins are unlikely up here, but there are a few necklaces and brooches in a dusty glass case. Loyal customers may still buy to support a last-of-a-kind craftsman. Henry will look closer later. Carol has seemed distant.

There can’t be many new customers. The yellow-page listings under Watches Serv & Repair could only replace a strap or a battery. A listing would probably cost Mr. Gordon more than new customers brought in. Henry found him in the white pages.

“An excellent timepiece,” the old man says. “Needs a mainspring. A collector’s item. Watches like this command a high price, perhaps several thousand. I can look around. You’d sell it? After your trip to your grandmother, of course.”

Several thousand? Carol’s home renovations required a second mortgage. Grandma, thank goodness, offered to buy his plane ticket. But he hasn’t come to sell a legacy. “Noooo. I don’t think so. Hadn’t thought of that. Granddad had this from his father – my great-grandfather. It’s worth repairing?”

“Of course. If the parts are still available. It will be worth more in working order. Pocket watches like this are scarce.”

“The parts aren’t all the same? Not standardized?”

“Ha!” the old man laughs mirthlessly. From a drawer he extracts a flat case with a dozen vials the size of a pinkie finger. He uncaps one, pouring its contents into a triangular ceramic dish, and peers through his loupe to seize a tiny screw in his tweezers.

“They never standardized. Different companies, different threads. Sometimes different from the same company.” He holds the screw up for Henry’s inspection with a rock-steady hand, then pours the screws back into the vial like a pharmacist funneling pills. From a drawer below he takes another case, and again pours out the contents of a vial. “My leftovers.” A thin smile: “Bastard sizes. My orphanage.”

Even without a loupe, Henry sees that they are all different. “Imagine! I had no idea. Yes, let’s bring Granddad’s watch back to life. I’ll think about selling it, but I certainly want it working. How long will it take?”

“Two weeks, three at most. Are there more?”

Henry visualizes the old jewelry box. “Yes. A silver wristwatch. And a gold from his retirement. And one of those self-winders.”

“Bring them when you come back, if you’d like.”

“Perhaps.” He glances at the jewelry case. A trinket for Carol might do what $40,000 of renovations hasn’t. “I may.”

Mr. Gordon pencils his phone number on the stub of a numbered cardboard tag that he ties to the watch, carefully tearing off the stub. “I’ll call and leave a message. Telephone first, please; I arrive late and leave early nowadays.”

The elevator down feels like a time-warp machine. Henry walks out, blinking at bright sunlight and shiny cars in what seems a different century. He is tempted to do a street poll: Anyone wearing a wind-up watch? He finds his car and drives home.

Click here to read the rest of the story at 99 Pine Street


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