My son wandered into the family room while I was inspecting the clock. "Was that fourteen?" he asked. I nodded and told him I didn't know why the clock was running.
"I wound it," he said.
"Because it wasn't running." He gave me his favorite stare — brow furrowed, head cocked, like I'm an imbecile.
The clock had belonged to my father, and while I certainly remembered it from my childhood, I knew little about it except that it was old and from Europe and not to be messed with. This last bit I knew because he mentioned it every time I got too close to the thing. I still didn't like going near it. I half expected dad to bark at me from wherever he was every time I did.
The clock had spent fifteen years in our garage, wrapped in a blanket and shoved behind some chairs. My brother had handed it to me after the funeral and I was too distracted to decline. I should have thrown it away when I had the chance. Then my wife came across it and decided it filled a hole in the family room that only she could see. It stuck out like a sore thumb, its dull, dark brown finish sucking at the light around it, its heavy, European ornateness making it appear larger than it actually was. I mentioned this to my wife — how terrible it looked — and she shrugged and said, "We watch TV in here."
Still, I hated the thing.
"Did you mess with the hands?" I asked my son.
"I set them."
"Did you overwind it?"
"I don't think so."
"I think you did."
I had no proof that he'd overwound the thing, and frankly it wasn't the sort of thing he was capable of. He was a careful kid most of the time — almost femininely careful in what he did and how he moved. His slow, steady focus worried me. His oddness, I guess you'd call it. If anything, he'd underwind the clock, not overwind it.
He's eleven, my son. His name is Phillip.
"Don't touch it again, okay?" I said to him. Phillip shrugged and wandered back to his room and his games.
He's a lover of games, this kid. Math games, number puzzles — that sort of thing. The stuff he does on his computer I can't even begin to understand. My wife tells me it's educational. I tell her spending all day on the computer can't be healthy, educational or not. He needs to interact with humans, I tell her. He needs to go outside and run around or ride his bike, even in the cold. Skin a knee or two.
"Relax," she says when I point out the flab he's got going under his shirt. Relax.
That night, at seven, my dad's clock chimed once. At eight it chimed twice.
When my wife got home I told her about the chiming, and she said, "Weird it's happening now," which was true. My dad was born on Christmas day in 1938 and he died on Christmas day in 1994, just a few years before Phillip was born.
At nine the clock chimed once. My wife pointed it out. I tried to ignore it. Birthday or no, death or no, I considered the malfunction a signal only of an old clock kept too long in a cold garage. I assumed the clock would become some sort of project I'd have to attend to, and even if I succeeded in fixing it the outcome would be a clock I'd rather not have to look at. I wondered if the defective chime might give me an excuse for throwing the thing out without feeling guilty about it.
When I got home from work the next day I found Phillip kneeling in front of the fireplace, a notebook in his lap. His head was bowed, almost as if in prayer, and I had to call his name twice before he looked back at me.
"It's repeating," he said.
"The wrong chimes. It's repeating."
"It's broken," I said. I didn't see the significance.
He held up his notebook. "It's right four times, then it's wrong eight times." He pointed at the page. I shook my head. "Two o'clock is right, three o'clock is right. Two through five are all right, then it starts over again."
I shrugged and his eyes dropped back to the notebook.
At dinner that night, my wife and son chirped back and forth about the repeating series of incorrect chimes: what it could mean, whether it had always been that way. The last question they directed at me. The clock had been on my parent's mantel my entire childhood after all, surely I remembered if it worked then. I told them I didn't remember. I did, of course. Clearly. The clock was never wrong: its chimes, its hands. My dad made sure of it. Watches were set to the damn thing. This business with the chimes had me in a bad mood, though, and I didn't feel like cooperating. "Who knows?" I said.
Later, after Phillip had gone to bed, I fumbled with the inside of the clock, looking for a way to wind it down or turn off the chime. As I slid my finger along the inside wall of the clock, I felt the edge of something, a piece of paper. It was one of those cards they stick in a bouquet: Happy anniversary, condolences—that sort of thing. I immediately recognized my dad's clean, efficient writing on the card. The last time I'd seen it was on the legal documents I went through when he died. On the card he'd written "To Sylvia, Love Tom." How like him that was, how succinct. I could see the gift this card must have been shoved into: a small, tight bouquet, flowers all of one color. Why my mother had decided to keep this card I couldn't begin to imagine.
I stashed the card in my shirt pocket, stopped the pendulum on the clock and went to bed.
I dreamt about it, though—one of those all-night dreams, the ones that keep you working at something for what feels like hours, the kind you wake from tired and frustrated. I turned off the alarm at five forty-five and stayed in bed, wishing I could sleep a little longer. Then, precisely at six, I heard fourteen chimes from downstairs.
By the time I got to the clock, the chiming had stopped, but I could still hear it resonating in the carved wood of the thing, mixing with the thick, dull ticking of the pendulum. I hurried back upstairs and woke Phillip. I shook his shoulder. I was boiling.
"Did you start the clock back up?"
He looked confused and scared.
"The clock, Phillip. Did you start it again?"
My wife called to me from our bedroom across the hall, trying to get my attention, to get me out of Phillip's room.
"No," he said. He rubbed his eyes and squirmed away a little.
My wife stood at the door now, and Phillip looked past me and at her. She asked what I was doing, what was wrong.
"The clock is running again. I stopped it last night." I looked back at Phillip, my lips tight, but he crawled past me and grabbed the notebook from the foot of his bed. He glanced at his watch then back at me. "Did it chime fourteen?" he asked.
He had the clock open when I went down to make coffee. He was peering into it, his face close. I told him to be careful, but lightly, trying to heed my wife's warning. ("Leave him alone," she'd hissed while I was brushing my teeth, like I was his stepfather or some clumsy, drunk boyfriend.) Still, it was an old, expensive clock, and I'd stopped it for a reason.
I sipped my coffee in the kitchen, watching him poke his fingers into the back of the case and run them along the inside of the door as I had the night before. I thought about the flower card. It was still in my shirt pocket upstairs. It would get tossed into the wash if I didn't stick it someplace safe.
"It's got German writing on it," Phillip said.
"Your grandpa Tom got it in Germany."
"Cool," he said. He came into the kitchen and grabbed a bowl. "Was he nice?"
"Yes," I said, "he was nice." And he was, to most people. He was admired, I could have said. He was respected. He didn't have a lot of time for me.
"Why was he in Germany?"
"He was in the Navy. On leave, I think."
Phillip's eyes lit up. He'd filled the bowl with a mountain of cereal, and now was dumping milk into it, sending the cereal over the sides. This was an every-morning thing.
"Did he fight any enemies?"
"I don't think so. We were between wars."
Phillip pushed on the cereal with his hand, sinking it, spilling more.
"He was a signalman," I said, and when he gave me a blank stare I added, "You know, codes, flashing lights at other ships."
"Cooooool," he said, long and slow. He took in a massive spoonful of cereal.
I couldn't believe I hadn't told him any of this. It felt like I had. It struck me that Phillip would have sat at my dad's feet and listened to every story.
Then, mouth full, he barked out a sloppy "wait a minute!" that sent cereal everywhere. I backed up but I kept my mouth shut. He swallowed fast. "Code, like semaphore?"
Phillip slammed his bowl onto the counter and raced to the mantel, grabbed his notebook and studied it. Then he looked back at me.
"We need to go to my school right now," he said. The clock struck one just as he said it.
I should have been at work. I had projects to wrap up before the holidays started. Here I was, though, driving him to school. Speeding a little. Nothing related to this folly felt right: going to his school two days before Christmas, breaking into his classroom and stealing a book ("borrowing a book," he corrected me), all because my dad's clock was broken. But there was something in the way he stood in front of the clock, in the boxers and t-shirt he slept in, milk in the corners of his mouth. And his face, his look a fresh mixture of fear and euphoria and epiphany. I envied his ability to feel these things so easily and all at once. I felt compelled to be near it and part of it.
"It'll be all locked up, you know that." We were still a mile or so from his school. He gripped the notebook and looked out the window. He didn't say anything. "Can't you get the signals on the internet?"
"I need the flags in the book."
"Are you going to tell me why?"
"I'll show you when we get there." Always with the waiting and the mystery, this kid.
As it turned out, we were far from the only ones at the school. Uniformed men hurried in and out the front doors, which were held open by trash cans. There was a county utility truck parked out front, two vans behind it. Large hoses snaked out the doorway. The principal stood on the grass near the entrance, smoking. He dropped his cigarette and stamped it out when he saw Phillip get out of the car.
"A water main broke last night," the principal told us. I could see pools of water just inside the doors, men pushing at them with enormous squeegees. "Merry Christmas, eh?"
I got the feeling he'd said the same thing to everyone he'd talked to that morning.
"My son left his mother's Christmas present in his locker," I told him. I shrugged and smiled.
"There's three inches of water under the lockers," he said. "I can't let you go in there."
"It's his mother's Christmas present." I shrugged again. I was proud of my spontaneous little contrivance, but I worried Phillip would spill the beans.
"I made it in class just for her," Phillip said. I looked down at him, astonished at the pained look on his face, the whine in his voice — a whine he'd used on me numerous times, one I'd never questioned as anything but authentic. The kid was a better actor than I was.
The principal looked down at Phillip. "You're . . . Randy Alvares?"
"Yes, sir. This is my dad, Pedro."
The principal shook my hand and I bit my lip to keep from laughing. "I'll walk you in," he said.
Once inside I slowed a little and Phillip followed my lead until the principal was a few yards in front of us. I leaned over and asked Phillip where the book was.
"Upstairs," he said.
I nodded and pulled my phone out of my pocket. I held it to my ear and said "This is Pedro" in my business voice, and when the principal turned around I pointed at the phone. "Work," I said. I waived him away. "We'll catch up." As soon as the principal turned the corner we flew up the stairs, our wet shoes squeaking on the steps.
The classroom door was locked, of course. I pulled a credit card out of my wallet and wiggled it between the door and the jamb. Thirty seconds later we heard the principal calling from below, looking for us. "Randy?" he called. "Mr. Alvares?"
Phillip snickered and told me to hurry. I jiggled and pushed. I had no idea what I was doing. We heard the principal's shoes now on the stairs, the same squeak. Then the lock clicked and I yanked the door open. "Go!" I said. "Get it! Get it!" Bold and vehement, like I'd been in the service like dad.
The principal was closer. There was alarm and anger in his voice. "Hey! Hey! Randy!"
Phillip ran out, a book under his arm, and pulled me toward another stairwell.
"Where do these lead?" I asked him as we ran down the steps.
"The locker room." He laughed and sped up.
As soon as I hit the floor my foot slipped. I slid three feet then slammed into the water hip-first, sending a wave against the closest bank of lockers. It took me a few seconds to realize that we were surrounded by half a dozen bewildered workmen. I scrambled to my feet and grabbed Phillip's arm and we sprinted to the car. I saw the principal at the door as we sped away.
"You might get suspended," I said.
"No, Randy Alvares might get suspended."
Then Phillip opened the book—a slim student volume about battleships—and held up the picture. "Here it is," he said. "See how it's six rows and six columns?"
"They wouldn't be in a grid on the Internet?"
"Not this grid. It has some of the words at the beginning and some at the end. The ones on the Internet aren't like that."
He handed the book to me at the next light. And there they were, whatever they were: a table of semaphore signals—one for each letter, sandwiched between signals for words like "attention," "pause," and "repeat."
"How do you know this is it?"
"This is the last thing I looked at before Christmas break. Our class was watching a kid's movie and I was looking through Mrs. Cannelo's books and I saw this."
His reasoning seemed thin to me. "That doesn't mean anything," I said.
He nodded. "Yes, it does."
"So you think this is happening on purpose?"
He nodded again and pulled the book out of my hands.
Phillip hadn't cracked dad's code by the time I got home from work that night, but he didn't seem too upset about it. I asked if there was anything I could do to help, and I was a little disappointed when he told me no, thanks. I brought him some dinner later on. I watched him from the hallway.
It was early the next morning—Christmas Eve morning—when he finally got it. I woke to him fidgeting by my side of the bed, holding the notebook close to my face. I slipped on my glasses. My wife leaned over me, her elbow on my pillow.
"It's saying 'Love Tom'," Phillip told me. He pointed at the page.
"Are you sure?"
He nodded. "Absolutely," he said. "I couldn't figure it out because he starts it with the signal for 'Attention'. After I got that, it was easy. Either add together the actual hour and the chimes or subtract the chimes from the hour or the hour from the chimes, then split the number into two addends and make them coordinates, like four and three are four rows across and three rows down on the semaphore grid."
Even if I had been listening there was no way I could follow him. I wasn't listening, though. I couldn't take my eyes off this piece of paper my son had filled with numbers and lines and equations, smudged from being erased and rewritten, all of it a jumble; then, in the lower-right corner: Love Tom. Phillip had done something I couldn't even conceive of. He'd found something that really wasn't supposed to exist.
I fished my shirt out of the hamper and showed him the card. I watched his face, his eyes moving from the notebook to the card. "It was in the clock," I told him. I thought he might cry. I put my hand on his shoulder.
We all went downstairs, and while Phillip showed his mom the battleship book, I went to the clock. I put my hand on it, just on the side. The vibration from the ticking moved into my fingers like static. I didn't feel him, though. If it was my dad coming through, his message wasn't for me. Not for me or for Phillip. Love Tom, it said; not Love Dad, not Love Grandpa.
But no, that wasn't true. Dad had sent his message in a way that, of all of us, only Phillip could figure out. So, for Phillip.
At six the clock chimed six times. At seven it chimed seven times. We'd just sat down to Christmas Eve dinner. Phillip listened, then looked over at me. "He's done," he said.
There wasn't much for my wife and me to do anymore on Christmas Eve. Phillip was too old to ask for things that required assembly. We stuffed his stocking, we watched a little news. On the way to bed I saw that his light was still on and I knocked. He was propped in bed, his notebook on his knees, a calculator in his hand.
"Time to hit it," I told him.
"I know, I know," he said. He didn't look up.
"Is there more to the code?"
I waited for an explanation but none came. His light was still on when I fell asleep.
On Christmas morning we opened presents quietly. Phillip was respectful and subdued, as always—careful with the wrap, stacking his presents as he thanked us. He hadn't jumped up and down over a gift in years, and I missed it. I knew I wouldn't see that sort of excitement on Christmas morning again until Phillip had children of his own and I was a guest in his house.
Then my dad's clock chimed and the sound brought me back to my own childhood. The clock had played no real part in my life; it had told no stories. And still it was there, always there, always running. It fit my parent's house. At night you could hear its chime and even its ticking from any room.
I went to wind the clock and saw a folded piece of notebook paper tucked under the base. I turned and caught Phillip watching me from the kitchen. I held up the paper.
"It's for Grandpa," he said.
I unfolded it and saw, in Phillip's handwriting, a single string of numbers and dashes. His writing looked a lot like my dad's. Clean and efficient.
"You used his semaphore code?"
"No," Phillip said. "He already knows that one."
I nodded and looked back down at what he'd written:
6-11-6 27-17-23 10-13-11-12-24 3-16-27 11-20-11-19-15-11-25 10-15 22-10-7 17-4-25-28? I knew if I asked him what it said he wouldn't tell me, at least not until after my dad figured it out.
Tim Christian writes from Macau, Colorado Springs.
I knew if I asked him what it said he wouldn't tell me, at least not until after my dad figured it out.
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