THE CLOCK AND THE LOCOMOTIVE
I got a New Year’s card from my sister Liz last year with a photo of an old clock on the cover. This clock had originally sat on the mantel of the house in Texas where we grew up. Our dad, she explained in the card, took the works out of a clock from our mother’s mother and put them in the ornate case of one from his mother.
As a teen, Liz watched him at work on the kitchen table as he married these pieces together.
She could hear it chime from the master bedroom through the wall to her room. She thought of it as the heartbeat of the house.
I don’t remember the chime. I don’t have an image of the clock in my head at all. The most I could get from her photo was a hazy suspicion that it might have been an object I’d seen a long time ago.
I wanted to understand it better, since it meant so much to her, so I turned my picture framer’s eye on it.
The white face of the dial was green with age. The hands had scraped concentric scars into the Roman numerals.
The works made at best an imperfect marriage with the case. The face sat asymmetrically in its opening, more to the right than the left. The body of the works had to be a little smaller than the aperture, so Dad had to wedge it in somehow.
And elaborate detailing covered the case, but some of it didn’t quite match from the left side to the right. On the left, a leaf-studded gold vine ended with a curlicue just off the opening, but its partner vine on the right was thicker, with larger leaves, and the curlicue overlapped the edging around the hole. These irregularities meant a hand different from that of the original decorator had restored some damaged details.
A wooden molding clung to the front, apparently to keep the works from falling out. The walnut molding, straight and simple, didn’t match the initial elaborate design. I knew where It came from: the racks of the picture frame shop my parents operated, and where I worked when I was in high school. I’ve made frames with that molding for shops in three different states.
The joints in the molding made an octagon, but only three lengths of the eight were evident in the photograph. The joints didn’t fit with precision. If he’d wanted, Dad could have fit them as precisely as anyone would want, but this was a personal project. He once told me, “What you make for the customer is one thing; what you make for yourself is another.”
What I recognized in the clock was not the clock itself, nor its significance to our family history. I saw the unmistakable hand of my Dad, holding the red sable brush he used to restore the leafy details on the case, one of several brushes he taught me to use. Those details were as good as a signature. He might as well have signed it “Mink” at the bottom.
One Christmas morning in the early 1960s, I pulled a big box out from under the tree and tore off the wrapping. Inside was a toy train set.
But before I reach too deeply into the story of the train, you should know about my room as a kid, so you can understand how the train fit into it.
The Victorian house on East Thirtieth Street in Bryan, Texas, had a steep, narrow staircase with a landing at the top. Off the landing were two rooms.
The larger of these, the largest in the house, was my big sister Patti’s room, with her son Tom, until they met a man called Pete, and my parents remodeled the room for me.
The walls slanted. In the center was a large bed. An extension on the right led to the balcony. Across from the bed was another, longer extension, directly above the master bedroom on the ground floor.
In this alcove, Dad laid a 4′ X 8′ sheet of plywood across a couple of sawhorses. He tacked the O-gauge tracks onto the board. Around them Dad built a landscape: a train station, houses, trees, a river, roads, and a water tower. Little hand-painted people stood around.
He didn’t, as many modelers did, cut a tunnel through a papier-mâché mountain, probably because we lived in Brazos County, and our landscape had no mountains.
Doing all this, Dad had a fine old time. It was his toy in my room. I doubt he had a train set when he was a kid. Many men may want sons, not so much to relive, but to construct new childhoods for themselves, ones they wanted but didn’t have. My dad could easily have been one such father.
Playing with it was a father-son activity, but after a while, Dad was done. He moved on to other endeavors. Ceramics, photography, cartooning, etc. I ran the train around the track for a couple of weeks. What could I have done with it except drive it in the same circle over and over? Okay, it had switches, but even so, the possibilities had limits. I did stage a battle or two on the terrain with my green plastic soldiers in a fight to the death with my rubber Tyrannosaurus Rex, but by this time I’d become too old for that stuff.
For years the train layout took up room in the alcove. Eventually, it came out. The tracks, the locomotive, the tender, boxcars, and caboose returned to their box. The freed floor space became a laboratory for my adolescent inventions and experiments.
Only a few activities were open to me in the evenings of my early teen years. I could have either sprawled in a chair in the living room with Mother and Dad and Liz and gazed at “Gunsmoke” on TV, or I could have endured the skirmishes of my parents’ imperfect marriage, their battles over which of them their children loved the most. Or I could climb the stairs to my room and build my erector set robots, my flexible-wing gliders, and my paper ‘copter spinners. I remember those well enough.
In time I grew up, escaped Texas for California, made wooden things with my hands, and settled at last in Seattle. My sister moved to Tennessee, married a historian named Ed, built her own career as an educator, and had a son.
I itched to visit my sister. Tennessee was as deep into the south as I could force myself to go, so I traveled to Tennessee.
I was welcomed, and once I was, Ed wanted to show me something. He brought out the old train set from my room, complete with tracks. Each Christmas they set it up and ran it around the tree. Ed put the engine in my hands.
The locomotive was about six inches long and bright red. I didn’t feel any surge of recognition or connection. I didn’t want to feel any of that. Instead, it stirred up a distant, half-formed, subterranean replay of all the levels of emotional warfare my parents fought on the battlefields of the house in Texas.
I turned the locomotive over in my hands and studied its details. Had I looked at it this closely when it was in my room? Probably not. It was a refugee from the past, like me, and I tried to disappear from the past as quickly as I could.
Yes, I did get out of Texas, but my life had switches. I didn’t get away as cleanly, or as soon, as I’d hoped. Remnants clung to me, surged up without warning, struck me in the face, and sucked me down into grief, pain, and rage. The little red engine in my hands in my sister’s house in Murfreesboro pulled me back into the Texas I’d tried so hard for so many years to live as if it never existed.
An impulse took me, to carry the locomotive to the back of my sister’s house and throw it with all my strength over the fence into the wilderness beyond. But I was by this time, not as given to impulse as I had in my past. Liz and her people didn’t deserve that kind of outburst. They did deserve some respect for their lives, and this object was now a part of theirs and not mine.
Still, some hint of my true reaction must have shown on my face. I’m sure my poor brother-in-law expected to conjure a treasured childhood memory. He might have inferred from the smart, sane example of his wife that all the Minkerts must be just like she is. But we’re not. Not all of us.
Jesse Minkert lives in Seattle. In 2008, Wood Works Press published his collection of microstories, Shortness of Breath & Other Symptoms. His work has appeared in over seventy journals including Harpur Palate and Poetry Northwest. He is a 2016 Pushcart nominee. In 2017, Finishing Line Press released his chapbook, Rookland.