The first thing Harry noticed was the clock. It was one of those old style clocks that some suburban towns like to put near their center that are almost always broken. He noticed it when they first put it up and noted to himself that it was correct and wondered how long it would stay that way. He didn’t keep close enough track to know when it stopped working. It wasn’t like he’d go out of his way to check up on the clock..
So Harry wasn’t sure exactly when the clock broke. It might have been Wednesday, but it could have been the day before or the day before that. But for some reason it stuck in his mind that the clock had stopped at exactly 1:40. In a funny way, he began to rely on that clock stuck on 1:40. Clocks that stopped running made sense to him, especially village clocks like this one that so proudly betrayed the town planners’ optimism that this clock would keep on ticking.
Since it gave him an odd sense of order in this disordered world that the clock always showed the same wrong time, Harry felt almost personally betrayed when he came past the clock the next day after work and saw that it now pointed a about ten past three. He couldn’t say how his sense of order in the universe had gotten so attached to the damn clock, but it had. He felt that it was wrong, that the damn clock should at least show the same wrong time all the time. He knew, of course, that it could just be a matter of the clock working for a few minutes and then dying again, but he found he couldn’t accept it and go on. As usual, his wife just thought he was nuts.
That’s when Harry began to notice that there were other things that weren’t quite right. He talked to his wife about it that night. “Did you ever notice a business on Shore Road named “Allied Parts and Chemicals?” he asked her one evening. No, she hadn’t, but what of it? She was sure there were lots of small businesses around town she hadn’t been aware of.
“That’s just it!” Harry said. “Nobody notices a lot of things, so nobody would notice if all of a sudden they changed!”
Harry’s wife gave him a sharp look. “Harry,” she said, “You’re losing it. Again! Honestly, you’re tiring me out. Last week you were convinced someone had moved the garbage can in the garage.”
“I’d forgotten that, but yes it’s the same thing. Stuff is moving around.”
“Please, Harry, you’ve got to get at least a little grip on reality. Sometimes you really frighten me. How you manage to hold down a job is beyond me. I assume the other programmers are as crazy as you are, so they don’t care, but I’m getting fed up. Every few days you’ve got another idea that’s crazier than the last one.”
“Okay, I’ll drop it, maybe I’m just stressed out, but I swear something’s going on.”
Harry didn’t keep his promise to “drop it” very well, although he did keep most of it to himself. The clock’s stuck time kept changing: 6:22, 2:05, 9:37. Once he found the hands pointing precisely to midnight. Okay, he tried to reason to himself, there’s probably a straightforward explanation. He decided to check it out. He called the town’s municipal offices, got passed from one subaltern to another until he got to the office that was responsible for the clock.
“It isn’t working?” the town’s maintenance supervisor asked.
“No,” Harry said, “That’s what I’m calling about.”
“I hadn’t noticed. I live on south of town. I never go down that way. But nobody’s complained.”
“Of course not. Most people don’t expect those clocks to work. But this one’s really strange. It’s not working but it’ll stay one wrong time for a while and then suddenly it’s got a different wrong time.”
“Must be broken,” he said simply. “I’ll get a guy over there sometime to check it out. It’s a new clock, so it should work I suppose. We must’ve gotten a guarantee or something on it. But I told them when they bought it, these kind of clocks never work for very long.”
“Okay, okay,” Harry said, getting a little exasperated, “But that isn’t the point.”
“It isn’t? I thought that’s why you called. If that ain’t the point, do you mind telling what you think the point is, sir?”
“I just want to know if anyone’s been changing the time on the clock. You know, maybe trying to fix it.”
“Okay, I don’t know why this is so darn important to you, but I’ll tell you nobody who works for the town’s touched it, that’s for sure. We’ve got enough problems with piled up garbage from missed pickups to worry about that stupid clock.”
That reminded Harry of his moving garbage cans but decided, wisely, not to mention it. “Do you think anyone else might climbing up to the clock and changing the time?”
“Listen, sir, I appreciate that you’re concerned about the clock, but, I’ve got a pile of crap on my desk to deal with and I really don’t know what you’re getting at. As far as I recall, the face of the thing’s got a lock on it. To prevent vandalism, I suppose. You’re probably the only person in town who pays any attention to it altogether. Anyway, I’ve got the key right here in the office along right next to town pool employee’s men’s room key, so, no, nobody’s been messing with clock. So, if you don’t object, I’m going back to work.”
With that, the maintenance supervisor hung up. Harry sat at his desk at work staring at his computer. He also had work to do. Okay, he thought, I’m on another of my wild goose chases. He reminded himself that he often felt there was something “going on” when it was mostly just his overactive mind foraging in the grit of day to day happenstance. He knew from experience that it was useless for him to try to “forget about it,” but he also knew it almost undoubtedly would amount to nothing. So no one was messing with the clock, but its stuck time was constantly changing. Most likely just a broken mechanism that got unstuck briefly only to get stuck again. Nothing more to it than that. Still, his mind kept mulling it over and over
On his way home, he saw the clock was stuck on yet another time – 3:15 this time. Allied Parts and Chemicals came into view. Harry decided to check it out. It was a little past six when he pulled into Allied’s parking lot. Behind the counter of the reception area was a small man with wire-rimmed glasses who didn’t look up when Harry came in.
The clerk, or so the man seemed to Harry, was working with pencil, paper and a large hand calculator and gave no indication that he had noticed Harry come in. Harry was not sure what to do. He waited a few moments and then spoke: “I wonder if you could help me?” he mustered his most polite voice to say.
The clerk looked up briefly, but then returned to punching in numbers in the calculator and going back to write them down. He seemed unsure of himself, perhaps, because he would look back and forth between the number on the calculator and the one he had written down three or four times before going on to the next.
A few minutes passed like this before Harry spoke up again, this time a bit louder but trying not to be too insistent, “Could you help me?”
Still nothing. But as Harry was just beginning to feel this was awfully strange, the clerk looked up, walked a step toward Harry and said, as any clerk might say, “Can I help you?”
“Maybe,” Harry said, feeling suddenly incredibly stupid about the whole thing. Of course this store had been here for years. Of course the clock was not moving itself to odd times for some strange reason, it was just plain broken. Nevertheless, Harry plunged forward and asked, “Has this store been here long? I’ve never noticed it.”
After another interminably long pause, the clerk answered: “Funny you should ask,” he said. “I’ve been wondering about that myself…The clock I mean. This store’s been here as long as I’ve been here, which is about seven years.”
“I didn’t say anything about the clock.”
“Oh, you know,” the clerk answered calmly, “the way the stuck clock’s time always keeps changing and then this place shows up and you can’t remember ever seeing it before. I know, they’re kind of the same thing. But come on in, I’ll show you around the place.”
Harry hesitated. Suddenly, everything was moving faster than he’d expected. Yet he couldn’t quite believe his own hesitation. Hadn’t he walked in here precisely to find out what the hell was going on? Before he could think anything through, the clerk had come around to Harry’s side of the counter, taken him by the arm and led Harry through a door into a back stock room with a single exposed bulb illuminating large metal shelves, cluttered with what looked liked parts of larger machines, like washing machine motors and computer hard drives. Some of it was new and clearly labeled, other objects looked like they had gathered dust in that very spot for decades.
What was he looking at, Harry wondered. Were these just simply the various objects this place sold to repair men or something? He was back to feeling grounded and stupid for thinking something more unusual was going on.
“So that’s what your place does?” Harry asked, “Sells stuff to repairmen?”
“You could say that,” the clerk answered and waited, as though it was up to Harry whether to go on or go back.
Again, Harry was unsure of himself. He reconsidered his original premise: Something completely out of the ordinary laws of reality was going on here, something was that could not be. So he could stop now, go back to being a more-or-less sane person who has occasional wild thoughts, figure it’s a repair shop that’s always been here and go back to leading his suburban existence.
It was perhaps his embarrassment at thinking of himself as a suburbanite that forced the next words out of his mouth: “There’s something about the way you said ‘You could say that’ that leaves me wondering, if you don’t mind. Could I just ask you, sir, what is this place, really?”
“ ‘Really’?”, the clerk said in a tone that sounded mocking to Harry. “What is this place, really?” the clerk laughed aloud, a hoarse but heartfelt laugh. “Well of that you yourself will to have to be the judge!”
With that the clerk led Harry into another, much larger, taller room. The room was not dark so much as extremely poorly lit. There was enough light to move around and to see where everything was, but just not enough to see what anything was. Harry sensed more than saw that, in this room, the objects were much larger, some perhaps even several stories high, although he could not see them well enough to tell for certain. The soles of Harry’s sneakers made what felt like intensely loud noises in the utter silence of the large room. The clerk’s movement seemed to make not a sound.
The clerk turned back to look at Harry with a what Harry thought was a scowl. Though the clerk said nothing, Harry assumed that he was making too much noise. He walked nearly on tiptoes as they crossed the huge room slowly from one end to the other without stopping or speaking. The clerk paused at a door at the far end of the room, Harry trailing behind by a foot or two.
The door itself was not unusual. It bore no special markings like radiation or biohazard warnings Harry had seen a few times in labs when he was in college. Harry wasn’t sure why it seemed so foreboding. Suddenly he felt like he was inside the kind of nightmare world of a horror movie, as though a hideous monster whose outside looked like human insides would be lurking inside.
But when the clerk opened the door, the room looked, at first glance, more ordinary than the giant cavern they’d just passed through. The room was the size of a college classroom, was well lit and was far more organized than the first two rooms. A diagonally sloped control panel lined one wall. On the three long rectangular tables in the center rooms were various tubes and pipettes, Bunsen burners. All were inactive. There were no bubbling cauldrons or oozing substances. For a moment, Harry’s mind adjusted to the plausibility of it all: Here was a room where the materials of Allied Parts and Chemicals were manufactured, tested perhaps.
Harry’s momentary return to the commonplace did not last. As soon as both he and Harry were inside the door and it had closed with a little sucking sound suggesting a hermetic seal being closed, the clerk switched off the lights. It did not become dark, however, instead, the entire space was filled with points of light. It was as though one were in a planetarium in which light painted not just the dome but filled every inch of the three-dimensional space.
The spectacle of light was not random. Instead, dots of color swirled in spiral patterns, strung together in the most intricate arrays, until, suddenly, it all fell into a complex but recognizable structure: the unmistakable double helix of a dna molecule, something Harry had seen many times in science books and magazines. Here it filled the space with light, twisting and spinning, glittering like tens of thousands of Christmas tree lights. It was as though it were alive.
In the midst of this, Harry became aware someone else was in the room with him. It was a tiny, balding man, barely three feet tall.
“Hello, Harry,” the elfin man said. “I don’t get many visitors. How can I help you?”
“Where the hell am I?”
“Allied Parts and Chemicals like the sign says,” he answered. We’re just a depot really, a way station, pretty much everything in the universe passes through here at some time or other, though right now things are kinda slow. I think there’s a little re-sequencing of human dna going on right now. I guess you’d call it the ‘pilot testing’ phase right now. If it works out, we’ll roll it out to everybody. There’ve been a few problems, though, so I’m not sure what we’ll do.”
“But who are you? Are you God? Or what?” Harry asked.
“Me? Oh, I guess you’d say I’m a god, if you want to look at it that way. But if I am a god, I’m sure as hell not a very important god. I oversee this place, it’s true, but I don’t really do much of anything. A lot of stuff comes through here and some experiments are done in the lab, but mostly I just make sure the lights work and the air conditioning doesn’t blow the fuses. Not too glamorous, but it pays the bills, like they say.
“It isn’t an easy job, don’t get me wrong. I’m usually in here about ten or twelve hours a day just trying to keep track of what’s coming in and what’s going out, what’s being tested and what’s gotta be shipped off or disposed of somehow. That’s really the hardest part, getting rid of the stuff that isn’t really needed anywhere. Half of the things in the warehouse – that’s the big room you went through – is basically junk. But you know how it is. The second you get rid of something, that’s when you need it.”
“Like I said before, we don’t get many visitors. Most of the time it’s just me and Phil – the guy who brought you back here – and you can see that he don’t talk much. Every once in a while somebody stumbles in. Of course, then we have to move the whole damn operation somewhere else, but that’s show biz. Sometimes I feel like I’m the midget in a traveling circus.
“That’s when I figure it’s time to get out of here for a while and walk around. Sometimes I like to play with the clock. Seemed harmless enough. I’ve heard some of my ‘colleagues’ screw around with things on purpose, just for the fun of driving humans nuts. At least I don’t go cutting an hour or two out of a normal day just to see how confused and bewildered otherwise ‘normal’ humans can be when their routines get screwed around with.”
All of us probably have a particular experience that is the pinnacle of their existence. For some it might be climbing Everest or winning the big game or making love for the first time. For Harry, even more than seeing dna raveling and unraveling before his eyes could not compare that knowing, knowing absolutely, that somebody really did move stuff around. Suddenly his whole life made sense: The wallet that he put in his drawer but found two days later in his shoe. The note with the girl’s number on it that he put right over on the table and never saw again. The pen that he lost in the bedroom, but found in the couch in the den. The day he walked around all day thinking it was Tuesday and then turned on the news and found out it was Wednesday.
It wasn’t reproach or anger that Harry felt, but joy, the hard-edged joy of vindication, of now knowing that he had been right all these years, that the gods did toy with us, play games at human expense.
Then the little god put his hand on Harry’s leg as a normally sized person might put it gently on a shoulder. He turned Harry back toward the way he had come.
“I don’t usually move things around for the hell of it, by the way, though I’ll admit I’ve done my share of pranks. But what am I supposed to do, sit around here all day watch the supplies come in and out.”
“You have to go back out, Harry, back out to the world where a place like this does not exist. You’ll wake from a dream and be more or less as you were before. I don’t worry much about your seeing our operation here: Since no one would believe you, you will not quite believe yourself. You will never be able to remember how you got here, but you will always know you left by waking up from a deep dream. You’re lucky, really, I’ve got handle a shipment of millions of sea anemones’ nervous systems passing through here in about an hour. I better get ready. Good morning, Harry.”
And with that Harry woke up. As soon as he did, he knew that little man, god though he may be, was wrong about one thing: Harry did remember, clearly and precisely, how he came into the Allied Parts and Chemicals office. He remembered quite clearly leaving work a few minutes early, driving past the clock and noting it’s absurdly changing time. Three-fifteen it had said, though it was nearly five o’clock. He remembered parking the car in the lot behind the store, walking up through the main door and waiting for the clerk to look up from his infernal numbers. He remembered every detail of the visit from beginning to end, not as a dream, but as an event, an experience.
When he awoke from the dream, Harry saw that his wife was already up and about. She had no interest in rehashing what had happened in the space between his leaving work and going to sleep. She did not find it significant that she couldn’t remember exactly what they ate for dinner or what they’d watched on television. The night was unexceptional the way most of their evenings were and that was that.
He knew the store would no longer be there and it wasn’t. He knew his wife wouldn’t remember his asking her about it the day before and she didn’t. The clock’s time now stayed neatly stuck in the same spot. Three-fifteen. Nothing exceptional about a stuck clock.