You may remember Christopher Walken’s increasingly unhinged monologue about the “war watch” in “Pulp Fiction.” If so, then you know a timepiece can be a pretty complicated keepsake: a talisman, a memento mori, a reminder — whether frozen or ticking — of lineage and finality.
Three watches in various states of disrepair rest on a silver saucer on my writing desk. None were mine. Each has a tiny story about how I came to be its keeper and about how each has rebuked any attempt to own it.
The Patek Philippe was a gift, I believe, from my brother’s final lover/patron. I began wearing it shortly after Kevin’s death in November 1991. I can’t recall how the sparingly elegant watch with the brown leather band came to me. Had it been in the bedside drawer in the four-bed room on the 11th floor of Manhattan’s now-shuttered Cabrini Hospital? I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have made it to me or our parents had it been.
After all, the shirt bought for his 29th birthday — celebrated with friends in that hospital room —went missing after his death. Perhaps there’s an essay in the pre-grave robbing that takes place in hospitals. I say that wincingly because my beloved is a nurse and the people who assist 91-year-old Geri come in and out of her room with no aims beyond her care and comfort. Okay, the dead can’t take it with them, but still!
The hands are frozen at 11:44. It was late morning when it stopped marking time. It was late in the evening when Kevin’s heart wound down.
One morning a few months after, I stepped into the shower wearing the watch. That was that. What the heck was my brother — an accomplished swimmer — doing with a non-water-resistent watch? How could I be so careless? Over the years, I’ve taken the watch to a few upscale repair shops. No luck. And though the shop clerks didn’t say anything, I’m beginning to wonder if the watch isn’t a knockoff. Not that it would matter. For more than 20 years now, it has been a relic with the aura of personal holiness that the word suggests: It’s the arm that touched it, the long-armed man that sported it.
The Longines. I’ve never quite forgiven my mother’s caretaker, D., for doing her job too conscientiously. Some time between my father’s death and the week D. and I packed mom for a move from Sun City West, AZ, to Denver, D. threw out a card that I’d hoped to frame for Geri.
The ivory-colored card was the layaway receipt for the first serious gift Geri bought Floyd. The receipt had been in my dad’s cufflink/watch/loose change drawer for years.
Mom gave me the watch after her husband of 53 years had a stroke then a lethal brain bleed in August 2012. In the time between their neighbor calling with the news of an ambulance headed to the Del Webb Hospital and me and B. making plans for the next morning's flight, Floyd Coolidge Kennedy died. Geri was holding his hand.
I took Dad's watch to a repair shop on Denver’s 16th Street Mall for a new crystal. It’s easy to joke that Myrick Watch & Clock Repair is the shop that time forgot. It’s a dimly lit affair on a high floor in the University Building (originally the A.C. Foster Building), a landmark brick and Bedford stone affair built in 1911 that took advantage of new construction rules permitting greater height.
The first time I stopped by, a cardboard sign of a clock face was posted with its hands pointed to the hour when the store would open after lunch. When the shop re-opened, a gent at the counter admired the watch. It is lovely, with its silver face, little gem and expandable black & silver metal band. He put a new crystal in. I wore it on and off, often on a night out.
In January of 2014, New York City was slammed by a polar vortex. Visiting from Denver, I’d run from the teeny lobby of the Music Box Theatre where the revival of “Pippin” was playing to a nearby Starbucks, my hands jammed deep into my peacoat. Later that night, I felt in my pocket and found the watch, its face, timing mechanism, and the case with the Longines inscription in separate pieces.
I didn’t bother to get it fixed again. Just put it with the busted Patek Philippe.
Moments ago, I reached for Mom’s Omega. Don’t fret, she’s still around.
Although, right about now might be a good time to admit I have a wait problem. I am a recovering procrastinator. Acting — or not — on a magical belief that time’s demands will pause while I take a breather, I regularly tempt fate and tenses. And so, the cockiness of that “don’t fret” (written in 2017) has turned to constant concern since Geri broke her hip in early 2018.
But before her right femur snapped and she got a partial hip replacement, we could worry about other stuff — about stuff. And what a delicate piece of jewelry it is: a 14K white gold dress watch with two tiny jewels. It, too, was a gift: from Floyd early in their marriage. I wonder if he’d decided on the brand as a nod to his Howard University fraternity: Omega Psi Phi? Or just chose it because his pretty wife deserved pretty things?
Some time last year, Mom handed her watch over for safe keeping. She can no longer wind it because as she said her "fingers don’t work.” Plus, her eyes water, making it difficult to read the teeny hands. Though, truthfully, it’s her faltering cognitive skills that are just as guilty of making the watch a challenge. Asked to draw a clock face during a memory test a few months ago, Mom drew something evocative of Dali, with three hands and hatch marks enough for a 28-hour cycle. Oh, the persistence of memory loss.
I've never wanted to wear Mom’s watch. Too graceful. A while back, the Omega’s crown fell off. Although it’s an easy fix, I know better than to get it repaired. You don’t have to tell me thrice. Keeping these watches once their rightful owner has relinquished them is like pounding on a silenced chest in hopes of the faintest tick. To paraphrase the old Timex ad: I know when I’m licked.