“The Watch” – Short Fiction

The Watch

First thing, when he heard he was in line for the promotion, Jones wanted something to show off. Something rich and important, the kind of thing that said Jones had a horse in the race and it was going to win. Though he was willing to pay the price one usually does to be dearer in the eyes of others, he would not go so far as cosmetic surgery, which would take much time and more money than he could afford. Nonetheless, what he required could not be too showy or pretentious, for that would put people off. No, this thing had to be the understated and dignified soliloquy to himself he believed others heard when he passed them in the office hallways and his fine clothes softly whispered, “Jones, Jones, Jones, yes, it’s Jones.” Once attained, he envisioned everything else in his life falling into place. Everyone would see the signs going up on his life’s new lot, where even now he imagined a boarded fence painted like a blue sky surrounding it, with a few kidney bean-shaped clouds to serve as peep holes through which passersby could gaze and dream.

But what should herald that first shovel ceremony and the heady expectations that go hand-in-glove when breaking ground on such a bold expanse? A Ferrari or a yacht’s loud portent of extravagance was gauche and impractical and not even he could keep up with such pretenses, and a gold chain or diamond ring would be like an Albatross around his neck or a truncheon in his hand and simply beggar vanity. What he wanted was the shadow of a dark hero to steal their collective breath as they turned a corner in life’s labyrinth. But only if it could be incidentally revealed, as in an offhand remark that assumes a fact not yet common knowledge, for that time when someone would innocently ask whether anyone had seen the handyman change the listing on Jones’ office door and it gradually got round the office that he was everyone’s new boss.

It was on the occasion of his return from the Yucatan, when passing through Duty Free he saw the watch, or rather heard the whisper of the perfect prologue that slips beyond the monogrammed curtain of a discrete French cuff to deliver, sotto voce, a life-sustaining pulse to its audience as it anxiously waited for the grand drama of his life to proceed. This, he thought, was just the dramatis persona he needed.

After meditating with the better jewelers in New York, he ordered one on eBay substantially discounted. On the day UPS delivered it, he felt his heart lighten as he fumbled with the packaging, realizing his breath was shortening with an anticipation not hitherto felt since he had missed the lips of the homecoming queen and kissed the flower on her ear instead. But now he sensed the impending fulfillment for which words were at last no use. A life often comes to rest within the moist palm of moments such as these. His seemed to anyway. He opened the high gloss mahogany box as if it held a family secret that had been withheld from him too long. When he saw the watch for the first time he felt himself falling into the unscratchable air space of its faultless crystal, where jewels like obedient stars wheeled in a precise universe whose movement in time could only mean there was a God.

In those first few days of its wearing he knew the bliss of Adam not yet troubled by the loneliness of paradise. Everything looked as if he was seeing it for the first time, and he began to notice the dust on sentimental things he had held onto for years and soon felt they just had to go, for they were no match for the kind of elegance the watch was bringing to his humble quarters. The desk would eventually change with the job, but the bric-a-brac and tchotchkes that had been collected all his life, like the primally-colored plastic pen and pencil cup (with “DADDY” in a shaken hieroglyphic of black marker pen) that his daughter had made for him 20 years ago, a snow globe with gold dollar signs (his mother’s graduation gift), and a piece of coral from a now-deceased friend, these would be summarily archived and in their place he would find some impressive piece of art history obtained at auction so that when the occasion warranted it he could tell the story of its acquisition, but not the price, which, like the conquest of a woman, a gentlemen could hint at, but never reveal.

Yes, conquests. He would, in short order, also need to upgrade the secretarial position. He would shunt old Ellen off to an associate and get a smart young woman, not too tall, not too good-looking, but above all someone who could understand the why and how of words she would come to use on the new job in a way that would be expected to impress the office staff and the higher-ups when they came to visit. Though where he lived was not a metropolis, he thought he might lure with better pay a well-educated young immigrant with a slight accent, British or even European, who could speak two or three languages, one of which was Mandarin or Cantonese to deal with the new business from China. He would risk the pain of transition and if she was anything close to what he thought she should be, it would go fairly smoothly.

But a month blew by and no word from senior management, and soon the talk around the office was that some new guy from New York would be hired to clean house. Suddenly the gold standard was compromised by baser metal. The watch’s spectral light became another dark phase of the moon, and he saw the dawning of his neighbors’ awe turn a respectful sunset. It was not just disappointment that he felt when he gazed into the glass and saw the grains slowly ticking into a soupy quicksand. The watch deepened and prolonged the inquisitive agony of why he continued to sink below the black waterline every day, for whatever virginal future he pursued resisted his advances. Perhaps the courtship period was too short, or it was a marriage made too easily in the tic-toc of a mouse click, but he’d compromised everything, and the watch was ruining it.

© Steven M. Critelli 2014


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