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Authors: Anne Tyler

The Clock Winder

BOOK: The Clock Winder
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Praise for Anne Tyler

“One of the most beguiling and mesmerizing writers in America.”


The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Not merely good … She is wickedly good!”

—John Updike

“A novelist who knows what a proper story is … A very funny writer … Not only a good and artful writer, but a wise one as well.”


Newsweek

“Tyler’s characters have character: quirks, odd angles of vision, colorful mean streaks, and harmonic longings.”


Time

“Her people are triumphantly alive.”


The New York Times

By Anne Tyler

IF MORNING EVER COMES
THE TIN CAN TREE
A SLIPPING-DOWN LIFE
THE CLOCK WINDER
CELESTIAL NAVIGATION
SEARCHING FOR CALEB
EARTHLY POSSESSIONS
MORGAN’S PASSING
DINNER AT THE HOMESICK RESTAURANT
THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST
BREATHING LESSONS
SAINT MAYBE
LADDER OF YEARS
A PATCHWORK PLANET
BACK WHEN WE WERE GROWNUPS
THE AMATEUR MARRIAGE
DIGGING TO AMERICA

A Fawcett Book
Published by The Random House Publishing Group
Copyright © 1972 by Anne Tyler Modarressi

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Fawcett Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

Fawcett Books and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

www.ballantinebooks.com

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 96-96706

eISBN: 978-0-307-78844-3

This edition published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

v3.1

Contents
1

1960

The house had outlived its usefulness. It sat hooded and silent, a brown shingleboard monstrosity close to the road but backed by woods, far enough from downtown Baltimore to escape the ashy smell of the factories. The uppermost windows were shuttered: the wrap-around veranda, with its shiny gray floorboards and sky-blue ceiling, remained empty even when neighbors’ porches filled up with children and dogs and drop-in visitors. Yet clearly someone still lived there. A pile of raked leaves sat by the walk. A loaded bird-feeder hung in the dogwood tree. And in the side yard, Richard the handyman stood peeing against a rosebush with his profile to the house and his long black face dreamy and distant.

Now out popped Mrs. Emerson, skin and bones in a shimmery gray dress that matched the floorboards. Her face was carefully made up, although it was not yet ten in the morning. Whatever she planned to say was already stirring her pink, pursed lips. She crossed the veranda rapidly on clicking
heels. She descended the steps gingerly, sideways, holding tight to the railing. “Richard?” she said. “What is that I see you doing?”

“Just cutting back the roses is all,” Richard said. His back was turned to her. He waved a pair of pruning shears behind him, hip-high.

“I meant what you’re doing at this
moment
, Richard.”

“Oh, why, nothing,” Richard said.

It was true. He was zipped up by now, free to turn and beam and click his shears on thin air. Mrs. Emerson stopped in front of him and folded her arms.

“Don’t try to get around
me
, Richard. I looked out my window and saw you. I thought,
Richard?
Is that Richard?”

“I was preparing to cut back the roses,” Richard said.

“Is that what you call it?”

Richard had a special set of gestures he made when embarrassed—pivoting on his heels with his head hanging down, working something over in his hands. He twisted the rubber grips on his shears and said, “It’s getting time, now. Fall is coming on.”

“That house you are standing by is Mrs. Walter Bell’s,” said Mrs. Emerson. “In full clear view of her dining room window. Don’t think that I won’t hear about this.”

“I wasn’t doing nothing, Mrs. Emerson.”

“Oh, hush.”

“I was only cutting back the roses.”

“Just hush. I don’t know, I really don’t know,” said Mrs. Emerson.

“You’re just distraught nowadays, that’s all.”

“Distraught? Why would I be distraught?” said Mrs. Emerson. “Oh, give me those shears, hand them over. You’re fired.”

Richard stopped twisting the shears. He looked up at her
with his mouth open, his face jutting forward as if he had trouble seeing her. “Ah, now,” he said.

“I’ll cut back my own damn roses.”

“Now Mrs. Emerson, you know you don’t mean that. You’d never just
fire
me. Why, I been working here twenty-five years, not counting the war. Planted them roses myself, watered them daily. Do I have to tell you that?”

“I don’t know what kind of watering you’re talking about,” said Mrs. Emerson, “but you’re leaving anyway. Don’t expect wages, either. It’s only Monday, and you were paid Friday. You’ve been here not half an hour yet and most of that time ill-spent. Oh, I looked out that window and thought I was seeing things. I thought, What have we come to, after all? What’s it going to be next? First Emmeline, letting my transistor radio run down, and then no sooner do I let
her
go than you start in. Well, you can send your new employers to me for a reference but don’t expect me to cover up for you. ‘Works well,’ I’ll say, ‘but tinkles on the flowers.’ Maybe
some
won’t mind.”

“Couldn’t you just take a little longer over this?” Richard asked.

Mrs. Emerson raised her chin and looked past him, twiddling with the empty sleeves of her sweater. She said, “Longer? Why should I take longer? I’ve made up my mind.”

“But if you gave it your thought, some. Who could you find that would work as good as me?”

“Whole multitudes,” said Mrs. Emerson, “but I won’t be looking. I’m too disappointed. Everywhere I turn there is someone failing me. Well, that’s the end of that. From now on I’ll do it all myself.”

“Paint the shutters? Keep that creaky old plumbing fixed? Climb up to clean the gutters in them little spiky shoes?”

Mrs. Emerson had already turned to go. She paused, lifting one hand to test a curl. It was a sign of uncertainty and Richard knew it, but then he had to go and ruin it for himself. “You’ll be calling me back, Mrs. E.,” he said.
“You’ll
call.”

“Never,” said Mrs. Emerson.

Then she went off on tiptoe, to keep from sinking into the lawn.

She kept a pack of playing cards on the dining room table. She sat down on the edge of a chair, smoothing her skirt beneath her, and reached for the cards and began laying out a game of solitaire with sharp little snaps. Her breathing was too rapid. She made a point of slowing it, sitting erect, aligning the cards carefully before she started playing. But unfinished questions kept running through her head. Should she have—? How could he—? Why had she—?

The sun from the bay window fuzzed the edges of the sweater draping her shoulders, lit the flecks of powder across the bridge of her nose. She had once been very pretty. She still was, but now that her children were grown there was something brave about the prettiness. She had started having to work for it. She had to fight the urge to spend her days in comfortable shoes and forget her chin-strap and let herself go. Mornings, patting a pearly base coat over her cheekbones, she noticed how she seemed to be falling into separate pieces. Her face was a series of pouches tenuously joined by transparent skin, reminding her of the tissue-covered frames of model airplanes that her sons used to make. Her close-set blue eyes were divided by minute cracks. Her mouth had bunched in upon itself so that she permanently wore the sulky look she had once had as a child. All she had left was color—pink, white, blond, most of it false. Weekly she went to the hairdresser
and returned newly gilded, with her scalp feeling tight as if it were drawing away from her face. She dressed up for everything, even breakfast. She owned no slacks. Her thin, sharp legs were always in ultra-sheer stockings, and her closet was full of those spike-heeled shoes that made her arches ache. But when her children visited and she stood at the door to meet them, wearing pastels, holding out smooth white hands with polished nails, she had seen how relieved they looked. Relieved and a little disappointed: she had survived their desertion, she had not become a broken old lady after all.

She put the red seven on the black eight. Now the six could go up. She looked across the table, out the bay window, and saw Richard standing exactly where she had left him. His shoulders were slumped. The pruning shears were dangling from one hand. Would still more be expected of her? But as she watched he dropped the shears and started off toward the toolshed behind the house. She would have to put the shears away herself, then. She had no idea where they went.

She turned an ace up. Then another. Along came Richard, carrying an old suit jacket, a brown paper bag, a thermos bottle. He was plodding, that was the only word for it. Thinking she was watching. Well, she wasn’t. She snapped the last card down, checked for possibilities one more time, and then hitched her bracelets back and gathered the cards into a deck again. When she next looked out the window, Richard was gone.

This house was full of clocks, one to a room—eight-day pendulum clocks that struck the hour and half-hour. Their striking was beautifully synchronized, but the winding was not. Some were due to be wound one day, some another. Only her husband had understood the system. (If there
was
a
system.) When he died, three months ago, she considered letting all the clocks run down and then restarting them simultaneously, so that she could stop puzzling over which day to wind which one. But the symbolism involved—the tick, pause, tock, the pause and final tick of the grandfather clock in the hall, the first to go—made her so nervous that she abandoned the plan. Anyone else would have just wound them all tightly on a given day, and carried on from there. Mrs. Emerson didn’t. (Wasn’t there something about overtight mainsprings? Wouldn’t her husband have done that years ago, otherwise? Oh, what was in his mind? What was the meaning of these endless rooms of clocks, efficiently going about their business while she twisted her hands in front of them?) Evenings she wandered through the house bewildered, opening the little glass or wooden doors and reaching for the keys and then pausing, her fingertips to her lips, her eyes round and vague as she counted back over the days of the week. She was not a stupid woman, but she was used to being taken care of. She had passed almost without a jolt from the hands of her father to the hands of her husband, an unnoticeable sort of man who since his death had begun to seem much wiser and more mysterious. He knew answers to questions she had never thought of asking, and had kept them to himself. He had wound the clocks absentmindedly, on his way to other places; he had synchronized their striking apparently without effort, without even mentioning it to her—but how? The grandfather clock in the hall was now a quarter-minute ahead of the others, and that was as close as she could get it after half a morning spent irritably shoving the hands back and forth, waiting for the whir of the little hammer as it prepared to strike.

BOOK: The Clock Winder
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