What's Wrong with the Wrights

Part One: Midnight: 1959

At midnight the bells ring twelve times slowly, and afterward the world falls silent except for the watery sound of fish. Jill Wright hears them swimming around her bed, and over everything is the smell of seaweed and salt. The water is rising again. Soon it engulfs her, and she swims naked like the fish through a blue phosphorescent sea. Giant sharks and whales circle nearby, their bodies slow and black, and everywhere are trilobites, gastropods, sponges, hermaphroditic bivalves, and thousands of other queer animals that are now extinct.


Jill sat up. Her brother was asleep on his back with one arm hooked over his eyes, and her mother and father were asleep in their room. She slipped the pack of cigarettes from her jeans pocket and tiptoed in her underwear to the porch. She was thirteen, the kind of girl who dreams of swimming in blue, ancient seas, who sneaks cheap cigarettes, who can see the future in a scattering of bones, and who is certain that she has gills hidden deep within her throat. She sat on the steps and lit a cigarette, then smoked with her eyes closed, still feeling the dream like memory. Her mind swept backward — eons, ages — to those warm blue seas, the beautifully queer animals, and she swam among them, turning through the water, then came with them as time returned, as fish grew legs and lungs, wiggled awkwardly out of the water and flopped about the land, scaled trees, grew enormous wings and feathers as bright as rainbows, grew talons, fangs, tails, then thumbs and big, convoluted brains. It was the time of Man.

She puffed on her cigarette, watched the smoke eddy like water.

A mile away the bell tolled once and fell silent. She flipped her last cigarette into the night and made her way back to bed, wondering if she would hear the next bell, wondering if anyone would. It was the time of Man — slingshots, gunpowder, atomic bombs.


Under her pillow she kept a tobacco pouch stuffed with brightly colored buttons, polished rocks, and chicken bones. She had cut grooves into the bones — three here, four there — and colored the knobby ends so that when cast over the bare ground they would reveal the future. Cleromancy, a type of sortition — a casting of lots, a casting of bones. She slipped the pouch under her shirt and held it to her chest, felt it like the future, cool and terrifying against her skin. She closed her blue eyes, listened to the fish, smelled sweet green seaweed and salt, and slid once again into the water.

Part Two: The Clock

The Dead Man

Cecil Wright foresaw a future as lightless as the back side of the moon. He stuffed the unpaid bill into his pocket, and hurried down the marble stairs of the courthouse. “What a son of a bitch,” he said to no one. He sat on a bench in the courtyard to smoke and imagine life in the dark. The world had turned on him, and he saw no end to it — more than bad luck, it felt like punishment. “And what did I do?” he said to no one. “Honestly, what did I do?” He smoked. Above him in the courthouse tower was the town clock. It had a wide, gray face, ornate, filigreed hands, and Roman numerals spaced around it. Above it hung a huge bell, and Cecil was waiting for it to ring. The clock hands were straight up — noon, time for the tolling to begin. He waited and smoked, watched people come and go from the courthouse, but the hands were motionless and the bell silent. It felt odd, as if time itself had stopped. He checked his watch, waited another minute to be sure, then went inside to tell the mayor, a short, round-faced man named Malloy.

“Give it up, Wright,” he said. “I already told you — ”

“It’s not about that. There's something wrong with the clock — it still says it's noon.”

The mayor tossed his pencil to his desk, and they went outside to take a look. The hands had yet to move, and the bell had yet to ring. “What a kick in the hind end,” Malloy said. “It’s like dominoes — the trash truck’s transmission goes out, the Third Street sewer line cracks open in the middle of the night, and now the clock.”

“Looks like somebody forgot to wind it.”

“You don’t wind a clock like this. It’s got an electric motor. Everything’s automatic.”

“Well, I’ll be damned. That’s my line of work, you know — motors, anything electrical.”

“I know your line of work.”

“Have you got someone that can fix motors?”

“No, I’ll have to call around, find me a clock man.”

Cecil smoked and watched the clock. “Tell you what,” he said. “You give me thirty days on my light bill like I asked, I’ll go get my tools right now. I know motors inside and out.”

Malloy pointed to the clock. “Wright, you see that? The thing’s bigger than you are.”

“I’m only talking about the motor.”

“And that’s the problem — you’re talking motors, I’m talking clocks.”

Cecil turned half away and smoked.

“Sorry Wright, but you’re not the man for this,” the mayor said, and hurried up the steps.

“Thirty days,” Cecil said. “That’s all I’m asking. Give a man a break, will you?”

The mayor disappeared inside the courthouse.

“Son of a bitch,” Cecil said to no one. For a minute he stood in the sunlight, then turned toward his shop. He walked with the cigarette in his mouth and his hands buried in his pockets among the keys and coins and a few spare parts. He was in and out of the sunlight, rattling that pocketful of junk.

Life Insurance

Albert Smith, a heavy man with white hair and a big lower lip, would be dead within the hour. His glassed-in insurance office was at the bottom of the stairs near Cecil Wright’s basement shop, and at twelve-ten he was calculating premiums — long lives, short lives — adding up what they were worth. Cecil came down from the street and rapped his knuckles on the glass. “Did you hear about the clock?” he said. “The damn thing stopped.”

Albert Smith cupped his hand behind his ear.

“The clock stopped,” Cecil shouted. “The town clock — the son of a bitch is dead.”

“That’s no concern of mine,” Smith said, and went back to work.

“And don’t count on it getting fixed any time soon, either,” Cecil said. He unlocked the glass door to his shop and went in.

Albert Smith held a form in the light to read the total. He was hungry, and he had no time for stopped clocks or Cecil Wright, either. A wastrel, he thought. A lazy man, a drinker, a deadbeat who takes the Lord's name in vain. Cecil Wright was behind him, but Smith could feel him the way you feel a window in winter, that cold on your neck. The man thinks I know nothing, he thought. Thinks I'm old and have bad ears and weak eyes, which is true, but even a deaf and blind man with his back turned knows what kind of man Wright is.

It was time to eat. Every day at twelve-fifteen, Mildred, his wife of fifty-two years, walked the five blocks to town with her little picnic basket -- sandwiches, coleslaw, cold chicken with bread and butter. But she was late, and Albert felt a little dizzy, something to do with his blood sugar he supposed. He checked his pocket watch. Twenty-five after.

Then thirty.


He put his pencil down, checked his watch, felt the dizziness and a burning at the top of his stomach. It was past time to eat, and he was surprised that he had become accustomed to such a rigid schedule. He cleared a space on his desk for the plates. Finally, at twelve forty-five, his wife appeared at the top of the steps. Albert stood up to open the door, but the dizziness hit him harder, and he sat again.

“I would have been here sooner,” she said, "but something’s wrong with the clock."

“It’s broken. Wright says it will be a while before it’s fixed.”

“Well, that’s terrible. A lot of people rely on it.”

"I don't know why anyone would rely on someone else to tell them the time."

"It's just a habit.”

“A bad habit,” Albert said. “I don’t need a clock to tell me I”m hungry.”

She put out the plates and silverware, and took chicken sandwiches, a Thermos of coffee, and a jar of sliced carrots from her basket. She lifted the carrots out with her fingers. “Are you feeling all right?” she said. “You’re looking a little peaked.”

“You get this old, you’re not going to feel good all the time.”

“Take a walk around the block now and then,” she said. “Get some sun and fresh air. You can’t spend your whole life in this basement.”

The sandwich had lettuce and tomato and mayonnaise, and she had cut the bread into triangles. She poured coffee.

Cecil Wright hurried by, glanced at his watch, then bounded up the stairs into the daylight.

“Won’t see him for a couple of hours,” Smith said. “Hightails it to the bar, drinks his fill, eats a Slim Jim or a stick of beef jerky and calls it dinner.”

“How would you know what the man has for dinner?” Mildred said.

“He’s been right behind me for nearly twenty years. I know more about him than he knows about himself. When he comes back, he’ll stand with his hands in his pockets like he’s thinking, smoke a cigarette, then disappear into the back room to shoot his gun for some reason. Anything but work, I suppose.”

“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” Mildred said.

“And let the shiftless man go hungry.”

They finished eating, and returned the dishes to the basket. Mildred said she was going home to take a little nap. After that it was more housework, laundry or some such. “Are you sure you’re all right?” she said. “I’ll sit with you a while if you want.”

“No, you go on. I may take that walk when I get a minute, see what fresh air does for me.”

She made her way up the stairs, and Albert Smith flipped the sign to Open. He picked up his pencil to work on premiums, but his breath was not coming easily — he felt it in his chest. Heartburn, he thought. He breathed in, out, considered the possibility that the next one could be his last.

Jill Wright: Omens

About one-thirty, my brother and I climbed to the top of the pile of rubble that had once been our school, John Tyler Elementary. Danny went there for seven years, I went there for seven years, and now it was nothing but broken slabs of concrete and rebar. Pitiful. Last spring they posted condemned signs even before school was out, and on the last day, as the kids flew out screaming and laughing because it was summer, a bulldozer was already parked in front, its engine idling. Three days later our poor old school was a pile of junk. A dump truck was still parked nearby, but no one seemed eager to clean up the mess.

From the top we had a good view of the neighborhood — the little store on the left, the highway two blocks down on the right, and in front of us, in the middle of the block, our little red house with huge cottonwoods in the back and dead grass in front. But the rubble pile was the highest point around, and we had climbed it to see the clock. The courthouse was half a mile away, and a million elm trees were between us and it, so we saw nothing but leaves and an oily stream of black smoke from the refinery. “Someone’s going to die,” I said. “You can pretty much count on it if a clock stops, especially one that size.”

“Clocks are nothing but gears and springs,” Danny said. “And what does a gear know? It knows how to go around and around, mesh teeth with teeth.” He sat on a busted concrete slab and leaned against pieces of rebar that curved out like mastodon ribs.

“There’s more to clocks than gears and springs,” I said. “They understand time — they know where it’s been, they know where its going.”

“Bullshit. Take a look at the insides — there’s nothing but mechanical metal crap.“

“The engineer speaks.”

"I just know how things work."

"Then you should recognize an omen when it drops into your lap."


Copyright 2021 by Philip Tate