Day 18: A Charmed Life

The wall clock stopped dead at 10:19. It must have been p.m. It’s something I would have noticed during the day. I’m not an obsessive clock-watcher, but there always seems to be a reason to check the time. Are the lentils done? Will I be in time for the bus that leaves on the quarter-hour? Is it too late to call Michael, who goes to bed even earlier than I do? Too early for Nikolas?

Francis Upritchard, Roman Plastics

Francis Upritchard, Roman Plastics

The next morning I replaced the batteries and reset the time. It was then that I noticed that the problem wasn’t the power source but the second-hand. It was stuck at the 50-second mark. It made a beat, lurching to the next mark on the clock and then falling back, as if the move to 51 seconds had proved too great a challenge. It kept repeating this pattern, beating like a needle-shaped heart, up the clock face a quarter-inch and then back down, again and again, the last palpitations of a fallen, loyal sentry.

The clock was a classic Braun (excuse the redundancy) wall clock of impeccable simplicity and functionality, a cream-colored 1950s model with the hours marked in a geometric typeface. It had stood guard on a post in the kitchen for the last decade. I must have looked at it thousands of time. Even now that it’s gone, I catch myself craning my neck to the post, only to see a column of absence. It makes me uneasy that it’s gone. It feels as if someone had stolen the flat’s mezuzah.

I don’t know what possessed me to throw it away. This was before the What’s Left project. I vaguely remember thinking it’d probably cost almost as much to repair it as to get a new one, only to discover later that, first of all, this particularly clock is no longer produced, and the auctions for the few you can find on ebay start at over $120. I’m sad it’s gone. It was a beautiful object. (If one thing this project is teaching me, it’s how attached I am to the—few—beautiful things I own).

I had a second wall clock in the bathroom, a cheap nautical-looking thing but at least it told the time. I put it up where the Braun clock had been. A few days later it stopped. The second-hand was trapped at about the same place. The 50-second mark.

It doesn’t matter if you believe me or not. I know it happened. I may have misremembered the exact point at which the second-hand of the first clock stopped, but I know the second-hand was entrapped. You don’t forget a jammed, pulsating clock hand. Twice. I took it down right away.

Two arrested wall clocks is something to be reckoned with, even for someone like me. Dieter says I’m overly materialistic. He means I tend to explain nearly everything—including things like infatuation, faith, and altruism—in terms of physical processes. God is in the neurons kind of thing. And he’s right, even if I do try to keep this to myself. I don’t tell Liza that the “active ingredients” in her shockingly expensive homeopathic medicine that she swears keeps her migraines under control has a concentration of one molecule to an amount of water roughly 30 billion times the size of the earth. I have some very smart friends, some much smarter than I am, who are convinced of the effectiveness of things that to me seem to have no solid scientific claim to truth. I suddenly felt very much like them.

Yannos is one such friend. He has a big glass apotropaic eye hanging in his living room. A navy-blue blot within a powder-blue yolk suspended within an ever lighter blue medium. “To ward off the evil eye,” he said. “I know, you think it’s ridiculous, but it doesn’t hurt to take precautions.” Yannos calls his mother whenever he has headache. To cast off the evil eye. I once told him that he could have instead set out one of his heroically sized dildos, as they did in Antiquity, but he wasn’t amused. I’ve learned not to contest his theories. I’m even less inclined to do so now that I’ve suffered the ignominious and eerily similar end of two wall clocks.

By coincidence I caught an episode of Warehouse 13 on satellite TV last night. It’s a rather silly series about Secret Service agents assigned to a warehouse in an out-of-the-way corner of (what is already) out-of-the-way South Dakota that houses supernatural artifacts. Their assignment: to retrieve artifacts that have gone lost or stolen and to investigate reports of new ones. What I found intriguing, though, was the way in which the magic of these artifacts was constituted. Many of the objects incorporated traces of the person who had once been their owners and “behaved” accordingly. The Sylvia Plath typewriter that sucked the life and will of anyone in its vicinity, Borgia’s comb, which endows the possessor with the ability to control another person’s mind but at great personal expense. Man Ray’s camera, which enables one to transfer the youth of one person to another by superimposing photographs of the two.

Though the series is a hoot, the idea that an artifact might incorporate traces of a person is not all that strange. We “wear off” in the objects we use, and sometimes literally so, when we deposit our secretions and our scent. Hence the disgust at the idea of using another’s toothbrush, and the pleasure we have in wearing a lover’s shirt or sleeping on his pillow. We break in jeans in a way that makes them unfit for anyone else. Our shoes bear the marks of our unique, unmistakable gait (the first thing a good shoes salesman at a specialist running shop does is to ask to see the soles of your running shoes). How else can one explain the value people across the ages find in relics, both of the dead and the living. How else does one explain why people would bid for William Shatner’s kidney stone ($75,000 the final price) or a pregnancy kit whisked away from the bathroom of a hotel room that Brittney Spears was staying in?

The good thing about the case of the paraplegic clocks was that my friend Nikolas’s gift of the driftwood mobile sculpture he made for me has found its rightful place in my flat, right where the nautical clock once hung. I used to have the sculpture affixed to a tiled wall near the toilet, partly because of the water element common to both, partly because it gave me and house- and dinner-guests something interesting to look at while they were about their business. But even a materialist like me knows that the location wasn’t the most propitious. I like looking at it and it reminds me of Nikolas, though I don’t need his sculpture for that. There are some friends you carry with you all through your days, and Nikolas is one of them. But I think of the sculpture as one might amulets and talismans, hei-tiki charms and the supernatural artifacts of Warehouse 13; I feel there’s a part of my friend “in there”. It is an object of good karma; even I can understand that.

But if there are objects with good vibes or feng-shui or karma or whatever else you want to call it, there are also those with bad vibes. One is a small, antique picture frame that’s been in the flat as long as the Braun clock has been. It’s in bronze, with an intricately wrought floral border around the frame that ends at the center top in an elaborate bow, at the center of which sits a small opal.

I’ve kept it hidden in a small wooden drawer within another drawer. I don’t even like looking at it. There’s something about the frame, maybe it’s the bow at the top, the sense of a present about to be wrapped, that makes it look like a trap, poised, like the Plath typewriter, to suck out the like of the person whose image is placed within the frame. I never got rid of it. It was Matthew’s, and he just forgot about, I think. But I also felt weird about throwing it out, who knows what petulant spirit I would incite by tossing it into the garbage. It’s more the kind of thing you would consign to a forgotten attic or warehouse. I don’t have an attic but there is a sub-basement in my building that someone told me people used during WW II to hide during Gestapo raids. It’s a good story, even though I’m not sure I believe it. But it’s the right place to get rid of the frame.


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