FICTION

GUARDIAN OF THE CLOCK

ROBERT ZACKS June 15 1947
FICTION

GUARDIAN OF THE CLOCK

ROBERT ZACKS June 15 1947

GUARDIAN OF THE CLOCK

FICTION

ROBERT ZACKS

JONATHAN BIGBY listened with unbelieving ears to what Mr. Kraft was saying. The words brought a dull hopeless ache to his chest. “Don’t feel so bad about it, Bigby,” Mr. Kraft said irritably. “It’s not as if we were casting you out to starve. After all you’ll be getting a pension. It’s cheaper for us to have an outside company do it at regular intervals than have a full-time man for it.”

Mr. Bigby was a man who found words vague, slippery things. They wandered tenuously through his mind now as he groped after them.

“I’m glad about the pension,” he said, meekly. “But you see the clock—it’s important. Everybody looks at it. I like to do it—I—”

It was hard to get it out, the joy of the smooth gears, t he regular ticking like a giant heart. That’s what itwas, a heart. Twenty stories up on the side of the huge insurance building t he enormous clock regulated the lives of thousands of hurriers through the crowded city. It. gave point to Mr. Bigby’s existence. He was the Guardian of the Clock, a traffic manager in the stream of time, telling thousands to dawdle, to hurry, to change their pace. Even at. night flu* face of the clock could IK* seen lit up and warning people of the passage of the limited, precious moments thattotal a person’s life. Somehow, Mr. Bigby couldn’t quite explain it, the fact that he was 72 years old made the clock a symbol of him. Right to the end it functioned with incredible accuracy, never stopping, never slowing down, and all because of him. That, was his sole job, oiling it, timing it, maintaining it. And when he was in the tower looking down at the hurrying, antlike crowds, and saw all their faces lift for a brief moment toward the clock as if in prayer to this symbol of mortality, he felt a strange exaltation and only slightly older than the young ones below.

“I understand. Very commendable attitude,” Mr. Kraft was saying. “You may be sure the firm of Jones Watch Care will care for the clock with equal efficiency. They are professionals in the field.” As Mr. Bigby slowly turned and went out, Mr. Kraft sighed. It was a hard thing to do, but with maintenance costs shooting up and after all Mr. Bigby was rather old. Mr. Kraft shook himself and briskly dug into the work on his desk.

Mr. Bigby went down into the street, wearily walked to Broadway and Twenty-Third Street for a better view, and looked up at the clock. It was 20 minutes to four and the hands seemed to shape a frowning mout h on the face of the clock.

“Don’t worry,” muttered Mr. Bigby to the clock. “We’ll show them.”

At seven o’clock that night, when the building was empty and quiet, when the streets were cool caverns of silence and the business district has a lonely dignity that comes only for a short while each evening, Mr. Bigby went up to the tower and [>erformed a heart-wrenching blasphemy. He made the clock a half hour slow, turning it back from seven to six-thirty.

. An atom bomb having been dropped in the stream of time, the fates whirled with the shock, then bent to their weaving, picking up and repairing the torn threads of lives. But Mr. Bigby was aware only of his broken heart and wearily he went down to the street and went home.

Willy Schneider put his foot on the brass rail.

leaned his elbow comfortably on the bar and downed the one Scotch and soda he allowed himself each day. He sighed as the warm tingle spread through him, and rubbed his bushy mustache with a satisfied motion.

As usual, he struggled within himself. Should he have another? He knew his limit and had wisely kept to it all these years. Otherwise his hand might lose its steadiness and he his reputation as the best barber in the barbershop.

“One more,” Willy said to the bartender. He had made up his mind. He would increase his daily limit to two. Being a man of iron self-control he knew he would stay at two. No question about it.

The second Scotch was as good as the first. Firmly Willy put the thought of a third out of his mind and virtuously went outside. He breathed deeply of the air which was somehow scented with Scotch. Ah, delicious!

He looked up at the clock. Seven o’clock. Suddenly his body stiffened. The clock had gone crazy. The hands were moving slowly backward, to six forty-five, to six-forty, to—Willy covered his eyes, turned, and walked quivering away.

“Tomorrow,” he swore aloud, “back to one a day, positively. That’s my limit.”

Mrs. Harrison saw her son Jeff putting on his mackinaw. She said timidly, “Where are you going?”

He whirled. “Mind your own business,” he snapped.

“You shouldn’t talk to me that way,” said Mrs. Harrison, hurt. “If your father were alive . . .” She turned away, forlornly, her shoulders shaking.

Jeff looked at her, his face sullen.

“Ah,” he said disgustedly, “I can’t even talk without you bawling. It’s a weapon, that’s what it is, you crying. What if I did talk a little loud? You’re always buttin’ into my business. I’m not a kid any more.”

“I just asked where you were going,” wept Mrs. Harrison. “I’ve a right to know.”

“I’m going to get some money,” snapped Jeff. “Anything wrong with that?” Jeff looked around him in disgust. The room was dismal, the furniture shabby, the walls needed repainting. “Lord, what a dump,” he said bitterly. “What a hole. You don’t expect me to hang around here, do you?”

Mrs. Harrison’s eyes shone with hope. “Oh,” she said anxiously, “are you going to take a job? If you got a job we could fix the place up a little. Then you would like it here.”

Jeff stared at his mother in amusement. He felt almost like laughing at the thought of voluntarily burying himself in the rut of a job.

“Don’t you worry about me,” he said cockily. “I’ll be back with enough dough to make this place a palace.”

Mrs. Harrison’s tired eyes inspected her son’s face. He was only 18 but the sullen set of his mouth wiped away the boyishness. She knew his yearnings for such things as a flashy car, expensive clothing. She didn’t like the crowd he was running with. He had been coming home at four in the morning.

“Have you a job?” she asked again, hopefully.

Jeff laughed shortly. He patted her cheek, grinning. “Yes. I’ll have a job tonight. Nightwork.”

His mother was struck with a sudden fear. She caught his arm. “Doing what?”

Jeff swore at himself, silently. Why didn’t he keep his big mouth shut? He looked his mother in the eye.

“Unloading cases. Like express work. Don’t worry.”

The sweet guile of his face was, as usual, effective. He had learned to use it on her as he never could have on his dead father. When he smiled and was nice, Mrs. Harrison was so happy at the superficial indication of friendliness, of love, that she would believe anything.

Jeff thought of it as he went down the stairs. It amused him. This grown-up woman, his mother, was like a child. It was funny. She was the child, not he. He wasn’t a kid. He knew the score. Jeff shrugged and went out into the street.

As he walked down toward the fur district where the gang was to meet, he suddenly remembered what he had ahead of him and deep inside of him their was a faint emptiness. Then he twitched his mouth scornfully and ignored it. It was his first burglary and it would be his last. He didn’t want to be a thief. But Slug Bowden, in the poolroom, had put it smart.

With cigarette in hand, wise eyes watching Jeff, lips hardly moving, Slug had whispered persuasively, “Sure, you don’t wanta be a crook, kid. Nobody does. We ain’t Continued on page 39

y was more man, but he ear and destiny

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Guardian of the Clock

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dopes. Ya gotta know when to stop. The ones that always gets caught is the hogs. They want more and more. We pull just one job and we live like kings on it for a year. And you don’t have to come in as often as that. Just once, kid, just once. A truckload of furs is worth 200 grand. Hell, kid, you can be a respectable businessman with your share. And the night watchman’s been reached, he’s our man, kid, we’re cutting him in . . .” and so on, until Jeff had agreed.

The gang had impressed on him the necessity of split-second timing. It was to be a skilled operation done fast, silently. Jeff looked up at the clock on the insurance building. Dismayed, he saw the clock was half an hour earlier than his watch. Anxiously he looked around for means of checking the correct time. He didn’t dare come a minute late or early. A group of men loitering in that district would attract police attention. Jeff began to sweat as he saw that all the stores were closed. He stopped a passer-by. The man had no watch.

“That clock there,” said the man, “is very obvious. Just look up.”

“Is it right?” Jeff asked nervously. “That’s what I want to know.”

“It hasn’t been wrong in 10 years,” said the man testily. “Must be run by radio or something.”

Jeff breathed easier. “Thanks,” he said. The man walked away briskly.

For a half hour Jeff walked back toward home and back to the clock again, t hen headed toward the loft.

He came to the narrow doorway and noted with satisfaction that not a soul was in sight. What timing! Slug Bowden was a smart guy, all right. Silently Jeff slipped into the hallway, found the door open and softly went up the stairs.

Like the crack of a whip, the spat of a pistol shot rang loudly through the quiet streets outside. Jeff stopped, frozen with fear. What had gone wrong? The getaway car wasn’t to come by for half an hour. Their splitsecond timing was to allow them half an hour from the time the night watchman failed to call in his report from the loft floor. Half an hour to grab a bale of furs, meet the cruising getaway car and escape the police alarm and dragnet. As a fusillade of shots in the distance pattered on Jeff’s ears he frightenedly dashed into the loft. ’Pied up, on the floor, the eyes of the night watchman stared up at him with the fascinated fear of a plan gone wrong He had, Jeff realized, come late. Ti.e robbery was over. Dazed he turned to run toward the stairs but there was the sound of many heavy, authoritative feet, and at the window was a huge blue-coated form speaking menacingly to him and the moonlight glinted on a gun pointed at Jeff.

MIKE REGAN, age 53, heaved the bucket of soapy water up the last step and mopped his brow on his sleeve. Then he carried the mop and pail to the office at the end of the deserted hall, put. the pail down and dunked the mop into it.

He sloshed the mop across the floor viciously, wishing it were the head of the supervisor he was bouncing off the linoleum.

He finished the office, then took a peek out of the window at the clock on the insurance building across the street. His eyes bugged with surprise.

“Begorra,” he snorted. “I’m ahead of me schedule.”

Annoyed with himself, he eased his bulk into a swivel chair belonging to an important vice-president of similar proportions, put his feet on the magnificent mahogany desk and sighed with relief. It wasn’t easy for a man of his age to do heavy cleaning and porter

work, especially with a sadist like O’Brien driving him. The thought of O’Brien made his fingers itch. The man was making his life miserable. O’Brien would look at a spotless floor, shake his head like he’d never seen such dirt in his life and after ordering him to do it over would walk across the still wet floor making it dirty indeed. Ever since O’Brien had come back from being a capfain in the Army there had been trouble. The nearest Mike Regan could figure it, he didn’t like Mike’s independent manner. Mike didn’t jump fast enough when O’Brien came through. Mike didn’t seem to knew he was under O’Brien in rank, pay, authority, and in the eyes of the Lord.

Glumly Mike stared out the window at the clock. It was a dog’s life when a man was sweated so hard he ran a half hour ahead cf his own tough schedule. Mike looked impatiently at the time. The only bright spot in his evening of hard labor came at nine o’clock when he knew O’Brien was checking the furnace in the basement. Then, with 18 floors between them Mike was reasonably assured of the 15 minutes time needed to listen to his favorite radio program, the Kookoo kids, with their howls of hilarious ha, ha, as the announcer chucklingly put it. This was risky because O’Brien usually checked him within five minutes after the close of the program. But, although O’Brien had boasted to his Army skill in sneaking up, as officer of the day, on insufficiently alert sentries, he always found Mike Regan innocently doing an office floor with a vigorous mop.

Wistfully, as he waited, Mikethought of the good old days when Maggie, his wife, was alive and he worked on day shift as handy man. Each evening, soaked with office gossip and amusing incident, Mike came home and regaled Maggie with vastly amusing trivia. Although Maggie was a horrible example of how not to handle a pay cheque, she was a wonderful audience, and Mike forgave her bewilderment at where all the money went. It was just as well, he’d have spent it on beer anyway.

At nine o’clock Mike snapped on the radio, keeping it low. He couldn’t seem to find the Kookoo kids. Suddenly he stopped, his jaw agape.

“We now come to the letter R,” said the announcer. “Janet Rayburn, Harold Rector, Margaret Regan . . .”

“Holy Saints,” gasped Mike. “I’m hearing things.”

The names were reread with addresses. It was indeed his dead Maggie they were talking about.

“Hah,” exulted a voice behind him. “Loafing on the job, you gold brick. Caught you, did I?”

Mike jumped as if he’d been stung, and picking up the mop he vigorously polished the floor.

“1 just took a breather,” he said, his head whirling with the quickness of O’Brien’s ascent and the radio miracle.

“You’ll have a much longer one,” said O’Brien, staring at the radio with the accusing triumph of a captain who’s caught a private with a button unbuttoned.

“That,” said the purring voice of the radio announcer, “summarizes the list of names of unclaimed bank deposit accounts. As required by law these accounts, which have been inactive for 15 years, are being publicized. If not claimed they will be turned over to the state. We will now give a last reading of names and amounts.”

“I suppose,” said O’Brien ominously, “you realize that you are now subject to . . .”

“Shaddap,” roared Mike, straining his ears.

When the announcer said Margaret Regan had an unclaimed balance of

$9,000, Mike gasped. “Glory be. The ould woman passed away that sudden she couldn’t tell me.”

1 “You have violated,” roared O’Brien, outraged at this breach of discipline, “the basic—” and then stopped with a gurgle, because Mike had dunked his mop and slopped it in O’Brien’s face.

Leisurely Mike strolled through the door and down the stairs, wondering what small business to purchase. At the tenth floor he paused as a thought struck him.

“If I hadn’t gotten the wrong program—”

Then he shuddered. He had a feeling Maggie was right there in the hall with him, watching over him. It was uncanny.

ROGER MEDWICK was making a sandwich for Mary, his wife. Deliberately, and because he intensely wanted to make her laugh, he made it a fantastic five-decker. The first layer had Swiss cheese and lettuce, the second boiled ham, the third imported sardines, the fourth peanut butter and jam, and the fifth was a layer of sliced hard-boiled egg.

With an anxious grin he balanced the monstrous sandwich between both hands and brought it inside.

Mary was seated in the special chair Roger had fixed up for her comfort. Her feet were stretched out on the padded rest and covered with a blanket. She was reading. When Roger came in she languidly looked up from her book, stared, and then sudden tears welled to her eyes.

Stricken, Roger put the sandwich down and hastily put his arm around her.

“And I thought it would make you laugh,” he mourned.

“You darling,” Mary sobbed. “You wonderful darling. I did laugh, inside, but it was so—so sweet, I just . .

“I know,” said Roger gently. He felt very tired. Everything that once would have been bright with laughter filtered through the pain of Mary’s misfortune, coming out gentled and saddened. He looked at the blanket covering her paralyzed legs and despite his own desperate intention never to brood, found himself picturing their slim, flashing grace at tennis and swimming. That was before the accident.

“It’s eight o’clock,” said Mary, reminding him.

John looked at her quickly. Had she been watching his face? She was looking at her book.

“I’m not going,” said Roger firmly. “Each week we go through this,” said Mary reproachfully. “I want you to go. And we agreed. One movie a week for you, to rest you. Otherwise it’s as if you were paralyzed too. And I do so look forward to your coming back and telling me all about the movie.” “You could come with me,” pleaded Roger. “If only—”

“No,” cried Mary, shrinking at the thought. “I couldn’t bear to go down to a theatre in a wheel chair, with everyone politely looking the other way. Oh, no, please Roger, don’t—

“I’m sorry,” said Roger quickly, heavily. He hesitated. “I hate to leave you.”

“You need it,” said Mary. “You really do. It does you a world of good.” They both knew it was true. Roger needed the renewed strength that came with relaxation.

Roger put on his coat, kidded Mary, and yet reluctantly lingered, hating to leave her alone.

“You’ll be late for the last show,” warned Mary gaily.

Roger forced a smile. He closed the door behind him and went down the

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stairs. When he came to Broadway he

looked up at the clock, checked his

own watch and decided his watch was

fast. The big clock had never been

wrong. Since the night was so lovely he

decided to utilize the extra half hour

by walking to the theatre.

When he arrived he saw the cashier’s cage being closed.

“It’s okay if you don’t mind missing half an hour of the main feature,” said the cashier.

Roger realized his watch had been right after all. Funny, he thought. First time Fue ever seen that big dock wrong.

“I’ll catch the show tomorrow,” Roger said.

On the way home he stopped at a florist’s and bought flowers for Mary. When he walked into the apartment Mary looked up, startled, her face going white. Her hand crumpled a sheet of paper she had been writing on.

“What’s the matter?” Roger asked. “Let’s see that, Mary.”

He had to take it forcibly. He smoothed it and read, “Darling, when you read this FU be gone. I can't stand being a burden . . .”

Mary put her hands on her face. “Oh, Roger, why did you have to come back!” she moaned.

Roger turned a grey face toward her. He was trembling. He saw a vial with skull and crossbones on the label.

“Is life so unbearable with me,” he said in a stifled voice, “that you’d—?”

“I was doing it for you,” gasped Mary, her hands on her cheeks.

“I can’t watch you forever,” Roger said staring dully at her. “I can’t always come back just in time. All I can tell you is that when you finally do this, I swear to you I’ll follow you. Do you understand?”

Mary reached out her hands. She said, blinded by her tears, “I was so wrong. I’ll never do it, I promise, I promise, darling.”

Roger knelt and stared at her. “If you do,” he insisted, “you’re killing me too, remember that. 1 swear I’ll ”

Mary flung her arms around his neck, and kissed him passionately. “1 won’t,

I promise. It was an impulse. I didn’t realize—”

“There’s plenty to live for,” Roger said. HLs face was still grey with the closeness of it. “You’ve got all your five senses. You can hear music. When we can afford it we’ll get a piano—you can bike lessons. You can still eat. We’ll not pinch on foods and eating is a whole world of sensations. There’s —”

Mary sobbed and put her cheek to his, interrupting his almost frantic flow of words.

“There’syon,” she said. “Oh, what a fool I am! There’s you.”

MORNING dawned, clean and washed. The city awoke sleepy and yawning. The lines of people formed, streaming to their jobs, and thousands of clerks and stenographers who seized just five minutes more of sleep paid for it with the unpleasant

hollowness that comes of missing breakfast.

Those workers who labored in the area around the clock blinked in astonishment when they saw how early they were—some 2,000 of them. Those who had watches gave themselves the benefit of the doubt and joined the watchless ones in a leisurely cup of coffee. After all, the building clock was used to check punctuality.

Up in the insurance building, the few office managers who had not given themselves the benefit of the doubt looked aghast at the empty desks and piles of documents awaiting addition, subtraction, typing, and filing.

“It’s the clock,” they said in awe to each other. “The clock is wrong.”

Calls started coming in. Mr. Kraft began to sweat. Then the final call came in from Mr. Thompson, the big boss himself. Mr. Thompson’s voice had that pleased purr that comes into an executive’s voice when he has discovered inefficiency before it can do serious damage. Mr. Kraft found himself explaining.

“It was cheaper,” he stuttered, “to pay Bigby a pension and the outside firm a fee, than pay Bigby a full-time salary.”

“How much did you save?”

“Five hundred dollars a year,” said Mr. Kraft nervously.

“Since we can’t dock our employees in a situation for which we are responsible,” said Mr. Thompson in a teacherto-dunce-of-a-pupil voice. “And since two thousand employees came a half hour late, how much did it cost us in the end, this economy of yours?”

Perspiration came out on Mr. Kraft’s forehead. He groaned as he made the necessary computations.

“I guess we lost about $400,” said Mr. Kraft. “Nine hundred dollars salary loss, minus five—”

“And that isn’t all,” snapped Mr. Thompson. “We’re getting calls from surrounding firms whose employees have been late. Some of those firms are our customers. Some of them are my personal friends, and they’re ribbing me on how efficiently we run a building. And that I do not like, see?”

Mr. Kraft saw. That, and the spots before his eyes also. He was afraid he was going to faint.

“I’ll get Mr. Bigby back immediately,” he said.

After Mr. Bigby had fixed the clock he went down into the street. He walked to Twenty-Third Street and Broadway and looked up at the clock.

Bigby felt the calm content of a man who has been vindicated. The clock wasn’t just a clock, it was a ruler, a benign despot watching over its subjects with eternal care, a—Bigby wished he could put the words to his tongue. But it didn’t really matter. The clock was there and he was its guardian.

Bigby’s withered face almost glowed as he smiled up at the clock. And, since the time was ten minutes to two, the hands of the clock made a mouth that was smiling back. if