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Minute Hand

He was alone. Last year, he might have predicted things would work out this way. Someone who had been given such a gift -- entrusted with it, really -- would never simply continue life as it had been before. He should have known.

And here it was again, this holiday time of year. The calendar told him it was 2012, and his life was different.

The change went much deeper than a season or being a year older. It went under his skin, as deep as his soul -- if he permitted himself to believe in such a thing.

Life was like that, he thought. It could strip everything away from you in the blink of an eye. And then it could restore everything you had lost -- give you even more, in fact, than you had ever had -- with the same lightning speed.

He knew that, now.

But one year ago, time was the future, past and present all at once.

"Look, Karen, I can't. Jimmy left early, so I gotta finish these cars." Carl wiped his forehead with a greasy sleeve. "No, it's just --"

The conversation may have been a broken record. Oil leaked from a Buick overhead while his words dripped into the receiver. "I'll pick them up when I get there."

An exhausted voice on the other end tried to reason with him.

"Fine," he said. "Forget it. You obviously don't want me to see my ... what do you mean? I'm working past 8 so I can afford to see them." Carl leaned against the desk, dismissing the glaring red digital numbers. "No, I don't think you understand!"

Carl hung up as she began to mention something about maybe getting back together, at least for Christmas.

It was useless. All of it. His family. His business. The damn Buick on the lift and three other cars in the cold, icy lot needing repairs. He threw the plug wrench on the floor, his anger competing with the noise. It bounced off the cement, ricocheting towards Carl' face. Instinctively, he raised his hand and felt the steel smash against his wrist. Another curse erupted as he pulled off his watch. The smashed Mickey Mouse face and broken arms dangled lifelessly. Carl's brother admonished him about wearing watches and rings while working on cars, but the watch was a gift from Emily, his oldest daughter. "Dammit," he cursed again. The recession was killing his shop and now his marriage. It was killing him.

"Excuse me?" a voice quivered like an old gas lamp into the garage. "Is anybody here?"

Carl composed himself. "Coming!" he said. In the doorway between the lobby and bays, a short, well-dressed old man stood, leaning on his cane.

"I'm sorry to bother you this late, but your lights were on and well ..." his quiet voice trailed off.

"Yes?" Carl urged impatiently, noticing an antique wooden clock under the man's arm.

"I know this is somewhat unusual, sir --"

"Carl. Call me Carl," the mechanic interrupted with forced friendliness, "as in the shop, Carl's Cars."

"Yes, well, Mr. Carl, I have this clock from a long time ago, and I'm wondering if you might be able to fix it."

Carl cocked his smudged face to the right. "What's that?"

"As I said, it's a rather old clock --"

"I can see that."

"... and I need it fixed."

"I don't mean to be rude here," Carl began, "but this is a garage, not a clock repair shop. Why don't you try, um --" Carl started toward the phone book on his desk, but the man stopped him.

"Wait," he said as he placed the clock on top of the Yellow Pages. "I've already done that. No one wants to fix it for me, and I need the clock for a gift. I thought, since you're a mechanic, you could figure out some of the problems. I can help. I know a little about this clock already; it's just my hands shake so much now. Can't even hold a screwdriver, pliers or anything anymore."

"I'm up to my neck with work here," Carl began. He looked at the clock, noticing the intricate carving and brass around its face.

"Just hoping, I guess." The elderly gentleman began to gather the ornate timepiece in his arms.

"You know, that is an interesting clock." Carl couldn't believe he was saying this. A car on the lift, bays full. "What do you think is wrong with it?"

"Well, it keeps time, but too quickly. Everything is fast. I think it might be the gear placement."

"Let's have a look."

Carl quickly unscrewed the back and deftly began pushing and testing springs, gears and fragile metal levers. He noticed the teeth of one gear skipping another, then traveled the length of the assembly to check the clock's balance.

His companion interrupted Carl's inspection. "I think the clock has been dropped, don't you?"

"Hard to say. Sometimes these parts just wear out. They still work, but don't mesh perfectly."

"Hmmmm." Came a thoughtful reply. "Do you think it needs new gears?"

"Not sure," replied Carl. "How old did you say this thing was? It's in amazing condition. The brass still shines in here," he said, pointing to spinning arms and rods.

"I didn't mention the age -- I don't truly know how old it is, but I've had it all my life." The old man sighed. "Time to give it away, though."

"You said it was a gift, right?" Carl delved deeper into the bowels of the clock, blowing away dust with his air compressor. "Look at this. A note."

"Really?" The old man became inquisitive. "What does it say?"

"Hard to read. Dear, um. Maybe Stella, Estella, something like that. Anyway, 'I am in Italy, but my heart is with you. Only,' there's a crease here, 'only time distances you from me. Let this clock take that time away.' What do you think?" Carl looked at his customer, but the man remained silent. Behind the face, Carl noticed a marble. "Do you believe this? A marble. No wonder the thing's broke."

"I didn't say it was broken," the man quickly said. "It just doesn't work the right way." He continued, "A marble, huh. I lost my marbles a long time ago." Both men chuckled at the quip. "If you raise that arm and somehow realign the gears, they'll come together without skipping."

"I've got just the tool." Carl walked to his upright tool chest and grabbed a tiny Allen wrench. "I'll kind of gently jam this in here, then bend the gears back toward one another. Could you just hold the hour and minute hand on the time right now, so they'll be ready for when the gears click?"

"Certainly. I think you might have it." Carl took the compliment and patiently waited for the gears to meet. He slowly watched them click and turn, then allowed the shiny lever to move on its own.

"Is it working?" Carl tentatively asked.

"Like new," the gentleman smiled. "How much can I give you?"

Carl looked at his watch before remembering it was no longer telling time. "It only took a few minutes. Don't worry about it. I'm sure the person you had in mind was worth the trouble."

"In that case, the person I had in mind was you." The old man smiled.

"But --"

"No buts. The clock, as I said, was a gift. So I'm giving it to you."

Carl stood dumbfounded. "It must be worth hundreds, maybe thousands."

"Don't know, really." Grabbing his cane, the old man walked toward the door. Carl was perplexed.

"Keeping time doesn't always mean minding the old minute and second hand." The cane tapped the cement floor until the man reached the door. "In fact, keeping time usually doesn't involve a clock at all." With that, he vanished into the snow, leaving Carl alone in the garage.

The neon sign buzzed, reminding Carl of where he was. A Buick on the lift, two cars in the bays and more in the lot. Was anyone truly waiting for them? Customers would return tomorrow, as would Jimmy, one of his three young mechanics. Outside, snow accumulated on the pavement. Soft snow. Good for snow angels. Carl looked at the clock, mystified. 7:58. The phone rang. It was Karen.

"I'd like to stay with you tonight," Carl whispered. "I'm coming home now. Could you keep the kids up for me?" The clock chimed 8, Carl limply held the receiver, and he remained happily baffled.

***

Today, he was alone again. But this time, Carl knew his family was at home getting ready for dinner. He was alone, puttering on a Ford truck. Checking his Mickey Mouse watch, he wondered if practice had ended or the boy had quit already.

Two weeks ago, a lanky teenager came to his shop, asking about an old Camaro in the lot.

"Well, it's not running right now, but I suppose I could get it up to snuff for you." Carl scratched his chin, his eyes moving from the boy to the car and back to the boy. He wore a basketball jersey, number 45. "I've seen you play, you know."

"What?"

"I go to your games. My oldest daughter is a cheerleader. You're pretty good at forward." They looked at each other. "Shouldn't you be at practice?"

The boy looked away and mumbled. "Gotta quit. I need a job and basketball just gets in the way."

"No," Carl urged. "You could really go somewhere. Why do you need a job?"

"It's just my folks are making me get one. My mom thinks we need the money, doesn't like me playing ball all the time..." He stopped. "I figure if I can get cheap car, I can probably get a job."

Carl nodded. "I'll see what I can do."

Two weeks later, Carl waited. Almost a year since the old man and his simple epiphany, Carl now waited for the boy. Finally, at half past 6, he came, jersey in hand.

"So you quit?"

"An hour ago. I had to."

"Did you want to?"

"What kind of question is that?" the boy asked. "Of course not."

"Well, I couldn't get the car running. I'm sorry. But this is worth a lot." Carl handed the elaborate old clock to the boy, who appeared baffled. "Before you pawn it though, take some time and think about what you really want."

"I don't get it." The boy remained confused. "The time isn't even right. It's over an hour slow. How am I supposed to --" Although the mechanic had begun walking away, the boy suddenly was entranced with inspecting the clock. It looked so old, but the hands were shiny, not to mention the brass around the face. "Maybe you're right," he called after the middle-aged man.

But Carl had retreated into the shop. Time to close. The little hand was on Mickey's leg already, and he had promised Karen and kids his famous homemade pizza that night.

***

Chris Cummins of Orchard Park teaches English at East Aurora High School, coaches a couple sports and directs some of the school's theatrical productions. He says, "I love teaching writing. That's why I love doing it. I write almost every day."

    He said he was intrigued by the short story prompt: "The whole 'looking back' thing epitomized time, and I thought, what better symbol of time than a clock?" He decided the story needed to be a "realistic fantasy to make it truly work. Once I gave in to that, it was really fun, because I lost all those limits that come with reality." And the mechanic? Well, Cummins said, he was in a diner, writing, and there was this car repair shop next door ....