“The Hour Hand” by Simona Zaretsky

19 March 2021 on Fiction   Tags:

Alexander had always wanted a dog, but his mother told him they couldn’t afford more batteries. “What about a rechargeable one?” he had whined. “I’ll pay for all the batteries myself! I’ll find an old one, so all I’ll have to do is wind it once a week!” Still, her rebuttal had been absolute. She said that the rechargeable battery was new technology and so unreliable; he did not have any money; and she was perfectly aware of how “old” clocks worked. When he was thoroughly exasperated, he exclaimed, “Beth has a hamster and you buy all the batteries for it!” His sister was a dangerous subject with his mother; a quick mention brought stale anger and renewed sadness. Prolonged discussion induced remorse—whether towards his sister or the accident he couldn’t say. All methods, however, were just a withdrawal from the teetering pile of coarse blocks that was his relationship with his mother. It was nothing like the relationship he and his dad had shared, that had been a hearth: comfortable, safe, home.

Sunlight washed across the cracked kitchen counter like spilled chamomile tea. Alexander stared, mesmerized by the swirling, mysterious patterns. The kitchen was a mausoleum, a relic of a bygone era; the shelves were filled with plastic potted plants, and books his mother had been meaning to read. He had been young when the switch was made, too young to remember tea or ketchup or penne. His dad had just finished college when food became obsolete. Why agonize over calories, exercise, cooking, or restaurant bills when you could simply pop a few enhanced AAA batteries into a clock? An everyday mechanism that had been altered by teams of engineers, scientists, and doctors to cure the modern world’s rising obesity problem. The heart was surgically removed to be replaced by the newly altered clocks. Gradually, a ticking world was created.

Dad had loved indulging Alexander with tales of thick, hearty minestrone, sweet and crunchy carrots, and all manner of savory delights. With cloudy, blue eyes he would tell his son, I wish I could get the world to forget trends, to think past the mechanics to the soul. To him, the soul was the meat of the matter.

Alexander trilled his fingers over the decaying counter, playing with the light. He looked towards the open door of the living room, the royal blue suede couch and bookcases warm with stories he and Beth had been read as children. He was going to be late again, he realized dully, with a small sigh. It infuriated him to have to wait for his older sister to walk him to school—especially since Beth did not care about him or school anymore. She had stopped caring, and so, four and three-quarter minutes before school started she would come strutting down the stairs, eyelids glowing like two purple lighthouses, jangling with big-beaded bracelets and long silver necklaces.

But he would not utter a single complaint against her destructive actions,  despite Beth’s frequent remarks about his clothes, his demeanor, his pesky morals. His silence to her was his responsibility, as it had been for seven months now: the length of time since his mother had stopped caring about whether her socks matched or how many batteries they could afford for the hamster; since Beth had changed her wardrobe and her attitude, giving the world the anger she wished someone would give to her; seven months since Alexander’s dad had last been alive with a gleaming heart tick tock-ing and not rusted brown with Beth’s carelessness. His dad’s monthly battery swap had always taken place on Sunday evenings, the last in the month, but a mislabeled bottle had made this one his last. It had been Beth’s turn to tidy the battery changing nook, which entailed pouring the family-sized cleaning solution into a smaller bottle (easier for them all to use), wiping down the counter of dust, rearranging extra gears, and making sure the regular household cleaning products were stored properly. She’d accidentally refilled the cleaning bottle with insect repellant—powerful stuff—they’d bought for when they’d had ants swarming in through the small cracks near their windows and doors, making camp in the neglected kitchen. The ants had danced along to the music in Beth’s headphones as she bemoaned the fact that she was still subjected to this tedious task. His mother had returned in the morning, after her shift watching NYPD drone footage, to find his dad lying silently in their bed. 

No, Alexander would only stare, with stony grey eyes at a girl who needed to dress up to be herself, or more likely to become someone she liked better than herself. Someone who cared very little for the mechanisms of the world and the body; for Alexander and his now-silent opinions. 

His mother would have said something, surely, a worn-out lecture or two on extravagance, tardiness, or vanity, but she was not here. She would come home in an hour or two; he could never keep her hours straight.

Stretching and turning to the glass door opposite the counter, Beth ran long, nimble fingers through Alexander’s soft, lackluster hair. Air escaped through Beth’s plum-skin purple lips: “Alexi,” she started, because she knew he abhorred the name, “have you been using my shampoo again?” She gave herself a wink in the shiny surface of the door, and faced Alexander for the first time that morning. Her hands flew to her hips—a pose learned from their mother.

As Alexander turned away from Beth and her morning routine of antagonizing him, he noticed the sun pushed its way through the chipped sun coating on the glass doors; it was to be applied annually and they were, like with everything else in their lives, seven months late on this. Perhaps if Alexander offered to take on the chore his mother would consider the dog—then again, she might turn to him with her endlessly sad eyes and he couldn’t risk confronting that.

“Have you?” Beth leaned closer. Alexander could hear the ticking of her clock through layers of ruffled pink and blue fabric. Her eyes burned with a fierceness and hatred that made Alexander tense inside. She brought her hand through his hair again, let strands slip beneath her fingers.

Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock, tick.

It echoed through the silence, filling the air with thousands of angry, fluttering ticks and menacing tocks. He wished desperately to escape that sound, that sound which swept his dad away from him, stole a man’s fiery spirit and mystifying passions; dissembled dreams, dreams that were not only his dad’s but Alexander’s, too, dissolved by— 

Tick, tock.

He could not tolerate the nearness of Beth. Her body, her clicking, ticking clock the arbiter of his own life’s collapse. He missed his dad like someone had mercilessly pulled the hour hand out of his body. He gaped with loneliness.

“Stop,” the word came out unintentionally, jagged, cutting his throat and squeezing his heart. “Stop.”

Beth’s face filled his vision. She looked drawn, the foundation collecting in the lines around her mouth, the deep creases etched in her forehead, the purple shadows she tried to hide under her eyes. She stepped back, allowing him room to hold onto the counter, placing it between them. Her face was only terror, a rearrangement of the anger from moments ago.

“Alexander?” she said, taking in a short breath, “I know it’s the worst thing I’ll ever do, okay? I know it’s the worst thing anyone could ever do—I get it. I’m never not going to. Sometimes I’m just walking down the street and I wonder if there’s anyone or anything watching over us, some god to give a shit—if maybe now dad’s there he could spare us a thought in the afterlife. A sign, you know? And other times I just forget it all—I forget that he’s gone and we won’t see him waving from the window or hear him laughing at your dumb jokes. And I’m the reason why.” The words rushed out and she turned her gaze to him, asking for absolution or punishment, he couldn’t tell.

“You killed him,” he answered. “You killed dad because you couldn’t pay attention for ten minutes. And now we all have to live with it—your selfishness and carelessness.” He was out of practice talking to her, and this had never been their dynamic before, Alexander as honest and forceful. Loud in his righteousness. Of all the thousand ways he had imagined this reckoning with Beth, it hadn’t been in their dingy kitchen, on a Tuesday morning, in the few cold minutes before school started.

Beth’s face registered the shock Alexander felt, at the words and at the conversation occurring at all. “I did—I didn’t pay attention, I wasn’t thinking about anything, really, that’s the shittiest part. I was just listening to the same songs I always do, and thinking about Monday’s Algebra exam and what to wear to school. And now I keep looking for that moment when I could have changed everything—when I could’ve double-checked and laughed at the mistake.”

Alexander didn’t want to forgive her. He didn’t want her to feel better. He wanted to yell at her, but she spoke first.

“But I don’t think I’ll ever laugh again, I don’t think it’s right,” she whispered. She clasped her hands, the knuckles white. She looked more like bone than Beth, like a skeleton with garish clothes on. “You should hate me forever.” Beth looked him directly in the eyes, asking him for this one thing.

He stared at her, the rawness in her face of guilt and grief, hanging all over her body like thick cobwebs. She was his family’s next tragedy. Alexander wasn’t sure what to do next, they both seemed to be in agreement, and yet it felt like a hollow victory.

“I feel the same way, sometimes,” he conceded, the greatest kindness he could offer. “I just drift off in Spanish class and I think how I’ve got to tighten up my stance for tryouts and I’ll ask dad how—and—and then I—” he whispered, looking down at the counter and the shifting light. He could feel the tightening of his throat, the pull of tears that always seemed so far away, buried under the everyday wear and tear of going to school, running around the baseball diamond with his teammates, facing his mother.

“It was an accident,” Beth breathed out.

Alexander met her gaze, each of them holding their breath, not willing to break the perfection of this moment. Wishing that this acknowledgment was enough to right the wrong, raise the dead.

“Dad wanted a dog, too,” Alexander said. He had no idea why, but all he could think about was Beth’s hamster that died in the brief moments in between changing its batteries, and the glimmering possibility of resurrection; how badly, with every muscle and bone in his body he wished that chance for his dad.

Beth nodded her head, the shine in her eyes telling him she understood. The fragile hope they could not have.

Their clocks struck 8am at the same time. They turned to each other, realizing, of course, that they were late for school. Alexander picked up his royal blue backpack, savoring the feeling of responsibility as he swung it onto his shoulders, and Beth straightened one of the fabric layers of her outfit, adjusted a bracelet with a loud clack.

“Maybe we could see if we could trade the hamster at the pawn shop and get a dog with the money,” Beth said.

Alexander turned to the door, wondering if he could trade in his broken heart the same way.

Image: "Wink" by Jeremy Szuder

Simona Zaretsky is the digital content and marketing associate at the Jewish Book Council. Her work has been featured on the podcast The Literary Whip, the online journals Digging Through The Fat and Anti-Heroin Chic, and is forthcoming in The Normal School. @simona_zaretsky

Jeremy Szuder is a chef by night and creator of poetry and illustration work by day. His past track record in the arts includes: 15 years as a musician in various bands (drums, vocals), graphic design work for clothing/skateboard companies, 25 plus years of self published Zines, showings of fine art in the underground art scene, a 10 year plus stint spinning vinyl at various events all across Los Angeles, where he resides via Glendale.

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