Since Jim’s birthday, the watch had become eight inches of steel-gray irritation on the mantlepiece. “It’s been a week, Jim,” Claire said as she wiped around it. And it had cost her a week’s pay.
He hadn’t asked for a watch. On his tenth birthday Jim’s parents had bought him a full-length mirror — when he’d specifically asked for a ten-speed bike. He needed to be much clearer about birthday wishes.
He didn’t wear a watch; he’d never worn a watch; he would never wear a watch.
“I don’t wear a — ”
“Saying!” Claire interrupted, “that you don’t wear a watch is like saying you don’t wear shoes.”
Jim put down his men’s underwear catalogue and peeked over his reading glasses. “Why is it like that, Claire?”
“God, I don’t know. I was groping for a metaphor.”
“Well, I think what you ‘groped’ was a garden-variety comparison.”
“It cost me a lot, Jim.” Claire curled onto the sofa like a dejected cat and removed her husband’s reading glasses. The watch hung over her hand. “Just put it on so we can get back to arguing about our usual topic.”
“I thought we’d settled on a definition of ‘dirty’ underwear. Weren’t we done with that one?”
Jim lived by the thinly defensible philosophy that he did not exist in time. Maybe this was more denial than philosophy, but he coddled it like a philosophy, so he called it one. Some moments were deep, some shallow. Some were blue and some were feathered. Some moments were forgettable, some wouldn’t go away no matter how much hypnosis or pot he smoked. Yes, he smoked hypnosis. Moments did not transpire on a timeline. If he put that clammy gray watch on, he’d be relenting — caving! And if he gave in to the idea that time was eventual and unavoidable, he’d be nothing but the culmination of his greatest fears: thirty-nine years, eleven months, six days, fifteen hours, forty-two minutes and counting — there’d always be the counting. He’d be nothing but a train clicking down the rails, carrying a load of degenerative cells to a messy mass suicide!
“Yeah,” he said. “Watches make my wrist sweat.”
“How do you know that if you’ve never worn one?” Claire was still holding out the watch. She moved it back and forth so that the sun from the bull’s-eye window blinded Jim in blinks.
“Stop it.” The floating lightspots tickled Jim’s eyes. He giggled. “Okay, don’t stop it. I like the spots.”
“If you put it on,” Claire babytalked, “you can play with the pretty lights all by yourselfsies.”
“No.” He stopped giggling.
“Oh, come on, Jim. The watch cost me three hundred dollars.”
“Well, take it back and get me wine.”
“It’s such bad form not to accept a gift.”
“We’ll frame it.”
“We’ll have it mounted and we’ll put it in a frame… like art. Beautiful, static art. We can put it in the bathroom.”
“No. We won’t frame it and put it in the ‘reject’ bathroom next to the wooden giraffe and your sister’s vacation photos. I can’t believe you’d even go there.” Claire began to cry.
“Crying won’t make me put on the watch, Claire.”
Claire stopped crying. “It’s just a watch. It’s not like you’ll melt or turn to salt when you put it on.” A thought occurred to her: “If you don’t put it on,” she said. “I’ll put it on you in your sleep. One morning you’ll wake up — not tomorrow morning; that would be too obvious — and there it’ll be, on your wrist. And because you’ve never worn a watch before, you won’t know how to get it off. I’ll make sure I’m out of the house, so you’ll have to go running to one of our wacky neighbors for help. They’ll laugh at you, and you know how you hate it when people laugh at you and not with you.”
“You said all of that in one breath.”
Claire held the watch closer and closer to Jim’s face until he could smell the sleek metal band.
“Smells cold,” he said.
“Oh, all right. But I’m doing this only because I love you — and because that part about waking up with it on my wrist scared me.”
“I love you too,” said Claire, “but I’ll do it.”
“Good God, okay.” Jim took the watch and held it against his wrist. “It is very cold.”
“It warms up to your body temp in seconds.”
“I better not sweat.”
“You won’t sweat.”
Jim snapped the clasp and turned the watch around so that he could see the face.
“What time is it, Turnip?” Claire asked.
“Oh, um…” Jim squinted at the little hands, put his reading glasses back on and squinted again. “There’s a glare.”
“Really?” Claire turned Jim’s wrist to look at the watch. “Wow, I never noticed that. You can’t see the hands at all, can you? God, they’re really, really thin. You know what, I’ll take it back and get you another one.”
Jim reclaimed his wrist and his watch. “It’s bad form to return a gift, Claire.”
Christopher Allen‘s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in places like (and very much unlike) Wilderness House Literary Review, The Legendary, Full of Crow and Bootsnall Travel. He’s been a finalist at Glimmer Train and his story “Red Toy Soldier” took first prize in The Smoking Poet’s Third Annual Short Story Contest. He blogs at www.imustbeoff.blogspot.com.