Clocks by Lanbo Yang

The tablecloth barely hung above Eli’s windows, supported only by two large cloth pins and black masking tape. The fabric was pure white, like a virgin, innocent to the blemishes of wine stains or the wear of habitual overuse. Warm, floating pools of light formed on its smooth surface, the sun’s undulating glow drifting comfortably with the wind. It hung high and overlooked everything else, deciding the lighting of the furniture, the dances of the shadows and the waning scarlet streaks of the late summer sunset. It ruled the room with regal delicacy.

Eli awoke to the sound of a police siren. The clock read 1:32 PM and he was hungry. The bright rays forced him to stay upright, looking, staring, blinking. He looked at his closet, which only contained Levi jeans and graphic tees. He had tried to clean his closet before when his ex-girlfriend made him, the words ‘and no girl likes a guy who stews in his own shit’ resonating deeply in his subconscious. But his shirts remained jumbled, sprawled out on the floor after she slammed the door in his face forever. The ruffled, plaid cloth bathed in the sun, cuddled its warmth before Eli grabbed it as he headed out the door, almost knocking over the beer bottles on the kitchen-side table.

He never knew which grocery store to go to. Nick always told him to go to Whole Foods but he never did. Food Bazaar was always his favorite because they had that seaweed snack that you think would taste like sushi seaweed, soft and mushy, but actually crunches like chips. Plus, it’s cheaper, he thought. His parents had only decided to pay for six months rent before they would cut him off.

The sun was high in the sky, coating the Brooklyn brownstone roofs with a glittering glaze. The bustle of cars cramped before the stoplight, and some, only the most daring, rushed past the light. Eli never paid attention to the signals – he loved jaywalking. Any sort of rebellion was a breath of fresh air. Past the third streetlight, he thought, then a left. But before he could figure out where he was, Eli spotted something and crossed the street.

The store was petite and looked purposefully rustic. It reminded him of the first bar he played at when he moved to this unforgiving city. He dreamed of Radio City Hall, but his voice and guitar were heard nowhere, save for the pigeons in Union Square and the echoing tunnels of the N-train.

His reflection appeared in the front window, eyes fixed on the intricate Indian tapestry inside. A man in his late forties emerged from the shelves, adjusted his glasses, and looked at the window. The tall, young boy standing outside caught his attention, his eyes hidden behind mysterious blonde curls that resembled the ruffled hair of a dog more than the golden waves of Adonis. Eli took the fixed gaze as a welcoming gesture and opened the door, an ‘Aroma Antiques’ sign wobbling behind him. A spider crawled silently across the glass.

There were dusty china vases, clay teapots, glass vials. A Buddha statue stood as the main attraction on the center table, the glaze of the clay shining from the Buddha’s fat, out-stretched smile. A framed map of Ireland, dated ‘circa 1660,’ hung on the left wall, crooked. The shape of the country curved like a claw on the crumpled paper, its wrinkled edges tinted with dark brown residue. Light bulbs suspended from the ceiling, dimmed by the web of tan Indian tapestries and Tibetan prayer flags that draped around them, the elephants and tigers on the fabric fierce in their silence. Eli stood and stared at this world but quickly diverted his eyes to a shelf on the right.

He picked up a small alarm clock, its back smeared with gold and black paint. His eyes marveled at the metal, his fingers prickling at the dark crinkling paint.

‘It’s from Alabama. Someone found it during the Great Depression,’ George said, pointing at the clock in the boy’s hands.

‘Do you have any others?’ Eli said.

The man hesitated before he responded.

‘Yeah, I do. Come with me.’

*
‘I read today that a boy died last night in Providence. Was only nineteen, too.’

Betsy passed the bowl of salad. The leaves looked fresh green. Actually green, not like the packaged, rotten salad bags you find in the frozen section of a grocery store next to the orange juice. Crystals of sea salt glistened from the stems. There was an antique tin clock in the middle of the table, its silver edges a shiny distraction from George’s eyes.

‘They said it was because he ate a cookie. Can you believe that?’ She stuck her fork into the cherry tomato on her plate, its fleshy juices bursting through the skin. She waved the tomato over her plate, like a puppeteer holding the crowd in suspense for her final act. ‘Apparently, the cookie was made with peanut oil and he was allergic to peanuts,’ she chewed, bits of pink gush spurting from her mouth as she tried to contain them, ‘couldn’t breathe, they said.’ After swallowing, she said, ‘choked. To. Death.’

The man poured some white wine into his glass, a Vermentino that received rave reviews from last month’s issue of the Wine Enthusiast, and he took a sip, coating his lips with wet and glossy saliva.

The tablecloth was white and clean, which was all that it was – no plaid or pattern, only the eroded, worn creases were visual distractions to its dull colorlessness. Next to the table stood a tall mahogany cabinet filled with clocks. Clocks made from wood or steel in yellow, orange, green. One of them even had the silhouette of an old lady with a cane.

The man poured more wine and said, ‘that’s a shame.’

He only said those words to please her. In fact, he could have continued to say, ‘that boy could have grown up to be President’ or ‘kids need to be more careful with food allergies nowadays.’ But instead his mind drifted, like the swishing of the wine in his glass, flowing with the muddled thoughts of another boy.

*
Eli looked around the small, quaint living room. The wooden floor creaked beneath his feet as he moved. This room was much smaller and filled with clocks.

‘Is this your house?’ He asked.

‘Yeah, kid.’

The man could see Eli was puzzled, so he said, ‘what? You’re wondering why I collect so many clocks?’

Eli nodded.

‘When I was a kid,’ the man said, ‘I used to think that these little things could make me control time. Now, I just like the way they look. What kind of clock are you looking for anyway?’

‘Anything, really. Just something to decorate my room.’

The man walked around the table, then reached into a cabinet. He pulled out a small red tin clock and handed it over to Eli.

The boy looked at the little piece of machinery, eyes locked on its steady ticking. ‘Thanks,’ Eli said, raising his head up to look at the man.

The man’s complexion looked firm and solid, showing only subtle signs of wrinkles. His contemplative dark brown pupils nested in short, trimmed blades of facial hair at the edges, the skin rough with maturity. The man’s posture was good, robust, his arms packed with muscle and potential. Eli could only imagine the toned, sculpted chest bulging under his shirt.

His breathing became ragged. They looked at each other.

‘I’m George and I’ve got nothing to lose.’

‘And I’m Eli. Just moved here,’ the boy said, ‘so I guess I’ve got nothing to lose either.’

*
Betsy opened the lid of the Balsamic vinegar and dripped the dark liquid over her salad, before looking for the cucumbers with her fork.

‘I just got the Globe today and read about this nineteen year old boy who got drunk at a party and was too afraid to go home.’

When she finally fished one into her mouth, the crunching was the only sound in the room. ‘So, instead of using the front door, he tried to sneak in through the window and his dad shot him, thinking he was a robber.’

George poured the red wine into a glass, a 1996 Cabernet that he bought from his recent trip to the Napa Valley. ‘Well, it was his own fault.’ He took a sip and smacked his lips with dark purple. ‘Young people are so goddamn stupid nowadays.’

‘Yeah, but was it really his fault? He was young, he’s supposed to be stupid.’

George opened his mouth again and took another sip of wine. ‘Where was this, anyway?’

‘Newton.’

His eyes widened.

‘But that’s a great neighborhood. Kids go to Harvard from there every year. What did his parents do?’

‘The mom runs a weight loss class in the North End and the dad works in management consulting. Shame,’ she said, ‘real shame.’

His mouth formed a smirk.

‘The kid is obviously a screw up. I tell you, a lot of kids today, they’re a doomed generation.’ He took a final sip of wine and gulped the purple trail of residue then rested the empty glass on the table, streaks of black like metal filings climbing its sides.

The woman wiped her mouth with a napkin.

‘What are you getting worked up about anyway?’

‘What, can I not hate young people?’ George retorted. He sneered in a particularly distasteful way, as if he was repelled by the blatant acidity of supermarket wine.

Betsy raised her eyes.

‘No, you can, honey. I just don’t understand why you care. It’s not like you can control them.’

George burst into laughter.

‘Whatever. You don’t know anything!’ His voice grew louder. ‘You just cook and clean, okay? Don’t pretend you know things you don’t!’

The woman slapped her napkin down on the table. The knives and forks shook for an instant.

‘I do know things, George. You just have to deal with it.’

She got up, her eyes locked on George. They were silent. She tipped the bottle of wine and left the room, the wooden floor shaking with her footsteps. The glass bottle landed with an abrupt thud on the table.

George took another sip of wine. His lips shivered for an instant, revealing teeth teeming with rage, tainted by dark purple spots. His eyes grew, his left hand forming into a fist. And he watched the drops of Cabernet pour from the bottle, its dark fluid contents slowly still dripping onto the white tablecloth.