Ethan was in love with Esmeralda. But was Esmeralda in love with Ethan? That was the burning question. She seemed to like him well enough, but liking and loving were a world apart.
If only he could spend more time with her, he would bring her around—or so he hoped. But trying to pin her down was like trying to make time stand still or stanch a river with your fingers.
Brief, fleeting, fugitive snatches of conservation in the hallway or the bus stop or the cafeteria—before class, between class, and after class.
But every time the conversation took a promising turn, the bus came, the bell rang, and away she went. Every opportune colloquy felt like a race against time—before the clock struck twelve and the gilded carriage reverted to a pumpkin.
Wanting her without having her made the wanting all the more obsessive. There were other girls—pretty girls, perky girls—but they were interchangeable. There was only one Esmeralda—only one girl who reminded him of a river ride on a sunny summer’s day.
So he did what any normal, sensible, lovesick and enterprising boy would do—he resorted to subterfuge. If she wouldn’t come to him, he’d have to go to her.
One day he trailed the school bus in his car, keeping a discreet distance. After she got off, he followed her—followed her until she went into a clock shop.
He parked his car almost out of sight and waited for her come to out, to follow her home, to see where she lived.
He had seen it before—the House of Clocks—seen it out of the corner of his eye, driving by innumerable times, but never really registering its existence in any conscious, memorable way before.
It was a small, rundown building in a small, rundown shopping center, with vacant stores for rent on either side. The only other business was a greasy spoon.
Minutes stretched into quarter hours, then half hours, then hours—until it began to grow dark, and he drove home.
That night he hatched a plan. He would damage his wristwatch and take it in for repairs. Assuming that she worked there or lived there—apparently—he could find out more about this elusive and alluring girl.
Such a natural way to strike up a conversation. He would act surprised to find her there. What a happy coincidence!
This would break the ice, inviting a series of innocent, offhand questions and revealing answers. She’d have to be nice to him since he was, after all, a customer! Not that she wasn’t always nice, but with a distracted air—as if she were flipping through a yearbook or old family photo album.
Once he established contact he could hopefully parlay his initial foot in the door into a casual meeting place and, from there, into a regular trysting place.
Damaging the watch was a delicate operation. If he did too much damage, the watch would be irreparable, and he’d have to buy a new one on the spot. If he did too little, it could also be fixed on the spot.
He wanted to inflict just enough damage that he would have to leave it there and come back. That would give him two bites at the apple instead of one.
The next day, after school was out, he once again trailed the bus, and parked his car at the same spot. This time he wanted for a decent interval to pass before going in lest it look like he was following her—which, of course, he was.
By force of habit he kept glancing at his broken watch. Then he studied the car clock while strumming his fingers.
After forty-minutes had passed he got out of the car and went over to the shop. To his dismay, the door was locked and the windows were dark. He tried to peer inside. He could make out faint tinkling sounds and dim flashes of reflected light, but nothing more.
The day after he repeated the same experiment, to the same effect. He tried again on Saturday, and Sunday, to the same effect. He tried in the morning. He tried again in the afternoon. He tried Monday through Friday. All to the same effect.
Not only was this frustrating, but he began to question his motives. What began as an impulsive gesture had become compulsive. Was this getting out of hand? Lurid news stories of celebrity stalkers, jilted loves, abusive boyfriends, and angry exes ran through his mind.
Yet he wasn’t trying to force himself upon her. She had never rebuffed him. There was no restraining order in place. He was just looking for an opening.
Yes, she was all he thought about. But wasn’t that natural? Wasn’t it normal to be smitten? Wasn’t that part of falling in love? The hunt. The chase. The quest.
The infatuation might pass, but for now he was acting like any healthy and hormonally charged young man might act. No harm done. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Still, his plan had failed, and he had no fallback plan. At the time it seemed like a perfect plan, something that had fallen into his lap by a happy providence.
Still, the trail had gone cold—assuming it was ever warm. Absent a contingency plan, there was nothing left to do except to leave off what he was doing. The only thing he had for all his troubles was broken watch and a broken heart.
Back to the bus stop, back to the cafeteria, back to the hallways. Soon school would be out. Soon they all would graduate. Soon they’d all scatter to the winds to move away, or marry, or study out-of-state.
Weeks later, as he was driving home from the movies, his eye caught sight of lights on inside the House of Clocks. He went around the block and drove into the parking lot.
By now he had a new watch, but the busted watch was in the glove compartment. He went to the door. Tried the door. The door was unlocked. The door opened. He went inside.
The shop seemed oddly larger on the inside than on the outside. The shop was full of clocks—clocks of every kind and description under the sun: cuckoo clocks, grandfather clocks, water clocks, astronomical clocks, figural clocks, Gothic clocks, China clocks, Lyre clocks, Skeleton clocks, sundials, and hourglasses.
The shop was dizzy with ticking and chirping and chiming, as well as the glitter of brass and glass, crystal and silver in perpetual motion and countermotion. It’s as if the whole of history was laid end-to-end, then coiled around like a garden hose and crammed within those four walls—today, tomorrow, and yesterday all in one and all at once.
In his captivation he didn’t see or hear a woman come up behind him until she spoke to him.
“May I help you?” she said.
He spun around, startled. For a moment he thought it was Esmeralda. Indeed, she was, in a way, the spitting image of Esmeralda, but a good deal older. Her mother, no doubt.
He concealed his disappointment at not seeing Esmeralda. Recovering himself he said,
“Yes, I banged up my watch. I’d like to get it repaired.”
“It looks fine to me,” she said, staring at his wristwatch.
“Oh,” he said, slightly embarrassed—still preoccupied by his real mission. “I meant this watch,” pulling the damaged timepiece out of his pocket.
She inspected the item while he inspected her. She was garbed in a rather quaint, Victorian dress—like one of the antique clocks.
“It might cost you more to repair than replace,” she said. “Are you sure you want to have it fixed—seeing as you already have another watch?”
Her lethal logic was rapidly unraveling his well-laid plans.
“I know it’s a cheap watch,” he said, “but it’s a keepsake. My dad gave it to me on my birthday when I was just a kid, so it’s the sentimental value more than anything,” he said, lying through his teeth.
“I see,” she replied. She took it over to the counter and began to fill out a form.
Speaking of time, the transaction was quickly moving to a conclusion before he had a chance to do what he came for. He looked around, half frantically, half surreptitiously, for anything with the proprietor’s last name—a plaque or sheet of letterhead—something he could use as a pretext to ask about Esmeralda.
“If you’d fill out this part of the form,” she said.
He filled in his name, address, and phone number and handed it back to her. That was followed by a hesitant pause as they made eye contact.
“Will that be all?” she said.
“Yes…I mean no…I mean…you remind me of a girl at school” he said. He was always at his most awkward when he pretended to be nonchalant.
“Who’s that?” she answered.
“Esmeralda Zeitlich,” he said, hopefully. Her face remained expressionless.
“I don’t suppose you’re related to her by any chance,” he added.
“You might say that,” she answered. “Anything else?”
“No, that’ll do it,” he answered, flustered by the whole exchange. He thanked her and left.
Right after he got in the car and put the key in the ignition, it suddenly occurred to him that he hadn’t asked when the watch would be ready. So he walked back to the shop, but the door was locked and the lights were out.
That was odd. It was open just a minute ago. But, then, everything was a little odd about Esmeralda and the House of Clocks. That’s part of what made her so bewitching.
He glanced at his new wristwatch. There still time to pick up a bite to eat at his favorite deli before closing time.
He drove over, went up to the door, but found it was locked. He looked through the window. It was dark inside.
He glanced at his watch. It was a little past 10:30. He looked at the closing hours. It wasn’t supposed to close until 11:00.
Maybe they closed early. Or maybe his cheap new watch was slow.
Irritated, he got back in the car and headed home. On the way he glanced at the car clock. It was nearly 2:00 AM.
How was that possible? He was only in the House of Clocks for a short while. How could he lose several hours? It’s as if time passed at a different rate within the House of Clocks—which was absurd.
He went back to the House of Clocks the next day, and the next—day after day. But it was never open.
A few weeks later he received a phone call. The watch was ready to pick up. “I’ll be right down,” he said. The voice on the other end of the phone sounded like Esmeralda’s—but a bit on the shrill side. One of the things he loved about Esmeralda was her soft low speaking voice. Her mother had it too.
He raced down to the shop and rushed in, expectantly. No one was there so he rang the bell.
A young girl came out of the back room. Once again the family resemblance was marked. She appeared to be Esmeralda’s kid sister.
After he paid for the watch, he asked, “Is your sister around?”
“Sister?” she said, giving him a blank stare. Once again he felt foolish and confused.
“Never mind,” he said, between sixes and sevens. After leaving the shop he ambled absent-mindedly to the car, eyes to the ground, sulky and sullen.
Lost in thought, he reached for the door handle, but he hand swept the air. The car was gone! Anger instantly displaced dejection.
He looked up and down both sides of the street. But something was out of place. As he stood there, watching the cars pass by, every car was an older model car—as if he’d been catapulted back into the Eisenhower era.
He walked several miles to his house. Or was it his house? The house paint was a different tint. He went to the door. His key didn’t fit the lock. He rang the doorbell. A strange woman came to the door. He was speechless.
Ethan slowly made his way back to the shop. As usually, it was closed.
He broke a windowpane in the front door and went inside. There was no one in the show room. There was no one in the backroom.
He went back to the entrance, the broken glass crunching underfoot. As he went outside and turned to shut the door, the window was no longer broken. He swung it back and forth. Broken on the inside, unbroken on the outside.
He strolled over to the sidewalk. The greasy spoon was gone. This time the cars looked like something out of a futuristic sci-fi movie.
Vivian was in love with Ethan, but was Ethan in love with Vivian? That was the burning question. He was a new student. No one knew much about him excepting that he lived along and had a part-time job at the House of Clocks.