“On Measuring Time”

Published by Every Day Fiction (November 2014).

On Measuring Time

The crisp November morning my grandpa died, I stumbled from my grandparents’ small house to Grandma’s car for a confused six a.m. ride to the hospital, my overweight grandfather already pale blue and slumped against his seat belt. In the backseat, holding the bulky car phone to my ear as Grandma drove, I spoke to the ambulance paramedics: “We just passed the fire station, can you meet us somewhere? Now we’re by a grocery store―Grandma, what should I say?”

Just over a month later, at bedtime on Christmas Eve, my grandma stood quietly before the cuckoo clock that had hung silent since our trip to the hospital. The pink enamel of her clipped nails shuddered against the hanging chains of the clock as she reached for the black iron weights, pulled her arms back, reached out again and paused. “Dale?”

“Yeah, Grandma?” I sat on my bed in the room behind her, watching her instead of reading in the same first-story bedroom where my mom grew up.

Grandma turned and stepped through the bedroom doorway, her hazel eyes half-lidded. “I need to ask you something.”

She sat down on the twin bed across from me. Her fine hands fell to her lap but never stopped moving―like small birds, just as they would settle, one atop the other, they would lift up and re-settle the same way, again and again.

I pulled one of my knees up onto the bed and looked at the woman who volunteered five days a week at a soup kitchen because she just didn’t know what to do with retirement; who I’d always hear cuss under her breath at church before smiling and shaking hands with people who talked to her like she was stupid; who had once whispered “Close your eyes” as she pulled a steak knife out of my forearm after I fell while carrying it. “What is it, Grandma?”

“I need you to set the cuckoo clock. For eight in the morning.”

I glanced over at the clock I had seen a thousand times, the one Grandpa had brought back from Switzerland after World War 2: the meticulously carved oak shaped into a house, the delicate plank where a wooden cuckoo flitted out on the hour, the dangling chains and the iron weights shaped like pine cones hanging from them. “But I don’t know how.”

“I can tell you. I’ll tell you how.” The corners of her mouth trembled.

I sat forward. “Can’t you do it?”

Her eyes shined glossy as she swallowed hard, turning to the clock, her head tilted up like one of the figures in the church’s stained glass windows. “Your grandpa used to do it. He used to pull the chains just before bed, last thing. And I do know how, but when I go to, it reminds me that his hands aren’t here to do it.” She sniffled as I thought of Grandpa being pulled from the car by the paramedics, his blue face, limp arms. Grandma pushed her lips into a weak smile. “It’s fine. It’s just been strange to go through days without it chiming.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, her lips still shaped like a smile. “Let’s get to bed now.”

We each stood and I kissed her cheek. She flipped the light switch off on her way out and went to lock the back door.

“Goodnight,” I said, my gaze on her from the soft darkness just beyond the open bedroom door. “See you in the morning.”

“Goodnight,” she said. “Merry Christmas.” She paused at the staircase―her face in light but heart falling under shadow―and her wet eyes flickered back to the cuckoo clock, the brittle wooden borders of the roof. Then she put a hand on the wobbly banister and walked slowly up the dark stairs.

A few minutes after Grandma creaked into the shadows of her bedroom, I rose from my bed and moved out into the hallway. In the heavy darkness before the cuckoo clock, I reached for the fine chains with shaking fingers―picturing all the times I had seen Grandpa raise and lower each wrought iron weight―and tugged gently, letting go of those that felt taut, pulling further those that gave way.

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