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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

Clockwork
by Alex Baratta

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It had started out as a normal day. Len Jones had awoken on Sunday morning, rising sharply, very sharply, at 6:00am in order to open the diner at which he was the manager. He lived in a small town, 'smalltown USA', if you like, where everybody predictably knew everybody, had their annual 4th of July barbecues (parades were out of the question since it would only take ten minutes to walk down the erroneously named 'Main Street'); and church, school variety shows and the Bijou movie theatre were the local entertainment, except for those traitors who secretly had DVDs and home entertainment systems, although you couldn't keep a secret for too long in this town.

Yes, it definitely seemed to be a normal fall morning. Crisp, but not cold, with the fallen leaves matted onto the concrete surface of the rugged sidewalks and everyone's cars parked in the same place they had been left the night before. Sure, it was Sunday, but contrary to the smalltown stereotype, Sundays were not a day for sleeping in, at least not past 8:00am, as the church service started equally sharp at that time, with Reverend Smith expected to arrive, along with the townsfolk who prepared the coffee and light snacks that followed the service, no later than 7:15am. Then there was the Sunday school teacher, Marion, who, in her religious zeal, arrived shortly thereafter. Len knew all these details less because the townsfolk knew each other's business but solely because he was, by his own admission, a micro-manager, for whom time and punctuality were one and the same, and daily routines and agendas, including everyone else's, were very important. Being 'on time' had deep significance for Len, whereas being in time simply meant arriving at your destination at the last minute, and for Len, the 'last minute' and the 'eleventh hour' were as dreaded as a case of rabies, the kind Mrs. Robinson's dog, Toto, came down with last spring (it would have made the local news, if the town had a local news station).

Len had made time his watchword, but owned just one watch, a faux Rolex, and he had just two clocks: one by his bedside and a small clock that rested on top of his TV. For one whose life ran by the clock, he didn't feel the need to advertise it by creating a veritable clock shop in his home. After all, people who know they're on time don't need an advertisement of the fact, and Len was much more self assured than that. But the need to be on time was a need. Len didn't really reflect too much on how the need arose, because that involved looking to the past, and past time was by definition, used time, and used time couldn't be used again, therefore, live for the present, which Len did. Accordingly, Len didn't waste a single moment; he got six hours of sleep every night which was more than adequate, rose at 6:00am every day which gave him just under an hour to get ready, leave his house and then arrive at his diner at 7:00am (no more than a ten minute walk from his house), in order to get everything ready along with the help of the rest of the staff, and finally opening for business at a very punctual 8:00am. He closed the diner at 10:00pm; with about an hour afterwards to clean up, then home by 11:00pm, with a final hour allowed for watching TV, hot chocolate then bed. Len lived by the clock, all of which meant that he had never been late for a single appointment or meeting in his life (if he had, that was in the past) and by the same token, arriving on time also meant leaving on time. Therefore, when the clock said 10:00pm, the townsfolk knew that they had to be exiting his diner, half finished pie and coffee notwithstanding. The townsfolk accepted this with a chuckle, knowing that Len was a good enough sort, just out of place in a town where it was usually acceptable for folk to saunter, not march. However, even at such a slow pace, it was now 7:31am, and the diner staff were 31 minutes late, leaving Bill 29 minutes to get his diner ready by himself, but he was choosing to stand outside the diner instead, having spent the first ten minutes, from 7:00am 7:10am, waiting inside for the others to show and beginning the preliminaries of diner preparation himself. This level of tardiness was not common, even for slackers like the kids who made pocket change working in his diner and presumably knew neither the value of time, nor a dollar.

For the first time in a long time in his busy life, Len was reflecting, in this case, reflecting on the fact that the town was empty, which had perhaps been the impetus for defying the routine, and subsequently choosing not to prepare the diner a minute more for its morning service. Not a single person to be seen and no noise save a few hungry birds who were singing in the trees. Small towns may be small, and sleepy, but not this much. Diners still needed to be opened, people needed to be fed (although maybe not today) and the Word needed to be delivered.

By 7:31am, even on Sundays, there were two businesses that should be in the process of opening their doors, not including Len's diner and Reverend Smith's church. There was Bill Jackson's lumber store, which, although it didn't open until 9:00am, saw Bill usually arriving by 7:00ish (Len hated people agreeing to meet at an ish time, that was just an excuse to be late) to do some personal carpentry jobs; then there were the Nielsens, who owned the local general store, and felt, like Len, personal responsibility to be there on time to serve a community which, trite though it sounded, really was 'one big family' and as such, needed to be there for one another, although no one took this more seriously than Len. A brief return inside the diner to turn off the lights and lock the door and then onward! Len had decided to visit these various businesses, walking to them each in turn, since perhaps people were there after all, busying themselves, but that would mean they had arrived before Len, and that would never happen! Len's first stop was the closest, the Nielsens', just a few feet from the diner. On approaching he sensed it was empty but knocked on the old wooden door anyway, feeling both nervous and excited at the prospect of old John Nielsen greeting him, but no one answered. Len was starting to feel a sense of unease, not quite like the dread he had of arriving somewhere late, but almost as bad. He moved in the opposite direction now, picking up the pace as he headed for the church. As he came closer a sense of defiance now overtook him; why should he even attempt to open his diner when no one could be bothered to help open it, and it seemed that perhaps no one would be available for a while anyway to even order a meal.

Len gave three even knocks to the fresh white church door. He needed to see a human face now, be it the Reverend, Marion or anyone else for that matter. No one came. Len spun round on his left foot, as if having been caught off guard by a sudden noise, but there was still no one to be seen or heard. The obvious answer would be to go and knock on everyone's doors and wake them up, but for one as logical as Len, that would be illogical. No; it would make sense to give them until 8:00am, then he would do something. Until then, Len demanded that everything fall into place, for this to all make sense: people in the town would arrive, and be very apologetic for having arrived late; yes maybe there had been a late shindig the night before - but he would have heard the noise, and how dare they not invite him! Maybe it was all one big practical joke, after all, there was one person in the town who had always playfully ribbed Len about his obsession to be on time and this one person had the influence to arrange such a joke to be played on Len. This man was Mayor Davis, a rotund, robust man with a handlebar moustache who looked every inch the Mayor, the kind seen in Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. That was it!

Now he had purpose! The diner can wait; after all, it they can pull a stunt like this, even postponing church of all things, then the Nielsens' coffee and danish, Dan Wilson's pancakes and even the Mayor's 'hungry man' breakfast could all wait too. Len tried as best he could as he made his way to the town hall to prepare himself for the surprise that might be awaiting him, consisting of the townsfolk, or at least some of them, getting ready to surprise him with an ironic chorus along the lines of we got up before you Len! The man who was usually up before everybody, always on time and never late, now faced with a cacophony of screaming faces, all of whom must have been up by 5:30am to pull this one off. It wasn't just that the Mayor could plan for this and convince the townsfolk that it was just a bit of gentle fun; more than that was the fact that Davis had always wanted to prove to Len the importance of taking things a little slower than Len was used to. He had always tried to explain to Len that in a town as small as theirs, meeting deadlines and arriving on time weren't exactly the same as meeting deadlines and arriving on time in New York, working on Wall Street. This was not about high powered banking and fat cat deals; this was simpler, gentler folk, who would bring Len chicken soup if he were sick; people who would understand if their food order wasn't delivered within fifteen minutes; and people who would pick up a spatula themselves and help out if Len were ever shorthanded in his diner.

Len appreciated the advice, but then again he didn't; after all, old habits die hard and for Len, there would be no way he would ever change. Therefore, the Mayor's advice to Len to maybe write weekly, not daily, agendas, and allow himself a lie in every now and then, not to mention taking a day off work and go fishing once a month... well, it sounds nice for some perhaps. But Len's answer to all three pieces of advice had been, respectively, daily agendas would continue, with the word 'AGENDA' all in capitals, underlined twice and always written with blue or black ink, never red; lying in didn't fit with Len, six hours of sleep was more than enough and it was a sleep pattern that didn't need disruption; and missing work to fish? Len had not missed work for years and besides, he didn't fish. No, the Mayor just didn't get it. Some had made the bottle their master, others money; for Len, it was time. But time that had served him, enabling him to stay on schedule amidst a life that was very much on track, and consisted of separate times for each daily event in his life: the time to get up, the time to wash his face, the time to eat breakfast, the time to leave his house, and several other 'times' throughout the day, ranging from the time to put the first pot of coffee on to the time to conduct the first restroom check in the diner.

Len's thoughts on Davis' fatherly advice lasted as long as his journey to the town hall. He stopped a few feet from the door. He checked his watch. 7:40am. Len faced a feeling of resignation. Did he really think there was an impromptu town hall meeting lurking behind the town hall doors, all in his honor? Was a man ruled by time really that unique, even given a town with a population of no more than 300 people? Was the need to change Len into a more relaxed being honestly that important to Mayor Davis? Len gave three of his customary sharp, perfunctory knocks on the town hall door anyway, which went predictably unanswered. Len took the time to move around the building, peering into each of the windows, now increasingly desperate to find life, but finding nothing. It was at this very moment that Len started to feel a minor panic set in, which, unlike the momentary unease and defiance he had experienced earlier this morning, was probably here to stay that bit longer. He began to walk back to the diner, to see if Jimmy, the head waiter, had shown up, perhaps with an equally perplexed look on his face, as he too would have found the town deserted. As Len walked, he turned his head in every direction, as if conscious of being followed by an unknown assailant, which of course would have brought a strange welcome relief had it been so. Still no one. Not a soul. 7:45am. Now Len had no choice but to go to people's houses, wake up the whole damn neighborhood if need be, and right now, need definitely be. Len had never been a solitary person, but his need to be ruled by time had perhaps alienated a few of the locals who couldn't understand the need to be so time obsessed, as they saw it, in a town that seemed to be so much more quaint and alluring because it never rushed. Len needed people now though; he needed Mayor Davis to slap him on his back as the customary accompaniment to the punch lines of his hackneyed jokes; suddenly, the idea of Jack Conrad lecturing the townsfolk on the benefits of solar power sounded welcoming indeed; what about Ethyl Evans, who was the local expert on extinct American Indian languages, with Len suddenly desperate to remember some of the language family names; then there were the Nielsens, whose family slides of their son and daughter as kids, who'd left the town years ago as adults, were now as pleasant as a cup of coffee by the fire in the main reception of sheriff Ryan's police station. These thoughts would hopefully be enough to sustain Len as he made his way to the home of Bill Fairbanks, whose house on the end of Cherry Street was the closest from where he was right now. By 7:55am, Len should have arrived, and one way or the other, started to see what the hell was going on.

He didn't have far to go as it turned out, having glanced back one last time at the town hall. Still no sign of townspeople to confirm that at least he wasn't crazy or all alone, but people would soon turn up. Len had received a visual confirmation that told him what had happened. The realization brought relief, then a feeling of annoyance and then fear. Fear based on the fact that the one man who had never been happy to simply be 'in time' but had always been on time, armed with an armada of ten minute 'watch checks' and daily agendas, had suddenly been caught out. How could this happen to Len? How could he have let it happen? Of all the people, this shouldn't have happened to Len, but it did, and now he was all alone, but not for long, to reflect on it. He could only imagine the look on Mayor Davis' face on hearing the news, but then again, no one would find out. Len would explain that he got up extra early to welcome a fresh fall morning but that would be a break from his routine so wouldn't people be suspicious? He had until the early breakfast crowd, if he were lucky, before some of the locals might start to ask questions, assuming they had seen him wandering around after all, as they peered out from their windows, unbeknownst to Len, and wondered what Len was doing all alone, peeping into windows and knocking on the doors of deserted buildings. He would worry about that later. For now, the worst part was knowing that he'd been beaten by Davis. Davis had been Len's opposite for so long (then again, wasn't everybody in town?), a man who walked while Len ran. A man who took days off to let the town run itself. A man who was naïve enough to wear a watch because it looked nice and rarely, if ever, looked at it for reasons other than admiring its encrusted diamonds. But he had caught Len out. A man who lived by the watch was beaten by a man who didn't.

Seems that old Mayor Davis had, along perhaps with everyone but Len, remembered to set the clocks back last night, it being the start of fall time and all, and there was no missing the large town hall clock, which now proudly alerted the town to the time of 6:48am as it seemed to laugh at Len. This truly was a sleepy town after all, where the locals appreciated the simpler things in life, such as the first snowfall of the winter, annual summer barbecues and, yes, that extra hour's indulgence of fall time sleep. This was something that Len had missed this time but it now started to sound like a luxury that even he could indulge in. Trouble is, he'd have to wait until next year to do so. For now, Len had twelve minutes before he would meet and greet Jimmy and the other diner staff. Maybe he would take the day off.

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