Very Literally the World’s Foremost Expert on Stopwatch Repair

My favorite Twilight Zone character was Mr Henry Bemis from “Time Enough at Last.” The people hating introvert that wanted nothing except to be left alone to his own inner world. Meanwhile, Patrick McNulty from “A Kind of a Stopwatch” was the opposite, desperate to connect to the people around him.

This story finds both personalities in the psyche on one man, Mr. Sandoval Chung. A man stuck between the longing for an unreachable community and the threat of an eternal isolation.

Stuck between two worlds in… the Twilight Zone.

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“Very Literally the World’s Foremost Expert on Stopwatch Repair”

a short story by Pete Hsu

 

On a long bench at a long table in what used to be his favorite coffee shop, Sandy Chung sits with an old stopwatch in his hands. His teeth slightly clenched, he fiddles with its brass case, popping it open. The mechanism inside has fallen apart. With his tiny hands holding tiny watchmaker tools, he removes all the pieces and lays them out on a napkin.

He thumbs through a book titled, Advanced Watch Building and Repair, Volume 7.

“Well actually,” he says, addressing the 12 silent and motionless coffee shop patrons in general, and Howard in particular. “The problem isn’t so much that the pieces are corroded, it’s more to do with the device’s intolerance for ‘after market’ parts. But it seems that as long as the rubies are in good shape…”

Going through the pieces, one at a time, he catalogues them. The arbors, corroded and off their moors. The gears and balance pieces, intact, but old and weathered. Made of gold, they don’t rust, though their fine edges are slipping away.

The bearings however, the rubies, these fine tiny red jewels, are perfect. Smooth, balanced and unworn. Ready to keep time.

“Beautiful,” he says. “Howard. Look how the light reflects.”

Howard does not respond. He stands, tall and lean and formerly vital, on top of a heavy duty four-wheeled dolly. In a frozen pose, he holds his arms out awkwardly, wrapped around an invisible opponent. As if he is a statue sculpted to represent Man’s Wrestling With Himself.

“Where do you think they come from?” says Sandy. “Whose lives have they touched along the way, through decades, centuries, beyond.”

Sandy is in no hurry. There’s no way to know what time it is, how long he has been sitting with this broken device. How long Howard and the coffee shop’s patrons and the entire rest of the world have stood frozen in that single last moment when this unusually special old stopwatch stopped working.

“There’s time enough,” he says. “To daydream, to think, to learn, about anything, about everything.”

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Several unspecified days ago, on the day the Earth as we know it ceased to exist, Sandy arrives at his favorite coffee shop 2 hours earlier than usual. He’s coming from his last day at his former job, where has just been fired. [1]

“You know,” says Sandy, removing his green bowlers hat. “When I was a kid, everyone called me Mr. Know-It-All.”

“Oh yeah,” says Howard, the barista.

“Oh yeah. I have what is commonly known as gifted level IQ, and EQ and SQ too. It’s what my father would call, an unquenchable desire for the truth.” [2]

“That’s great, Sandy.”

“Most anything that most anyone might happen to want to discuss. I’m your man.”

“I know. You’re really smart.”

“Well, Howard. You’re no dummy yourself. Don’t get down on yourself, okay?”

Howard does not respond.

“Alright then,” Sandy says, patting the younger, taller, leaner Howard on the cheek. “Gimme a small regular coffee please.”

As he orders, he scans the dining area.

There are new skateboard planks on the west wall and one of the smaller tables has been removed, making the room seem noticeably roomier. The regulars go about their business at the good tables while a number of unfamiliar faces are stuck in spaces with high traffic and no power outlets.

A teenage couple, a boy and a girl, sits at the chessboard. They are not playing chess. They are quiet, whispering almost. With no apparent regard for gamesmanship or the tide of time, she gently places her hand on his.

Something in Sandy’s posture loosens a little bit, watching these two.

“Look at that,” he says. “To be still and free and timeless.”

Sandy shrugs as the girl picks up the boy’s hand, holding it between hers. [3]

Picking up his cup, Sandy’s shifts his attention to two handsome young Anglo men engaged in a conversation about American children and second languages.

One of them explains, “Mandarin is not useful in Southern California because most Chinese here speak Taiwanese or Cantonese.”

His partner agrees, nodding his head and shifting the conversation towards the upcoming Justin Timberlake concert.

“Actually,” says Sandy. “It’s a misconception that Chinese immigrants are primarily Taiwanese and Cantonese speakers. This might have been the case ten years ago, but with the more recent economic boom in China, droves of new Chinese immigrants have arrived. Almost all of whom speak Mandarin, specifically with the Beijing accent favored by mainlanders.” [4]

“Oh, really?” says the first man, “Well, thank you for that.”

He turns away to continue his formerly private conversation.

Sandy takes a seat next to the young couple.

“See,” says Sandy. “You can track the shift through real estate. Notice how many new Chinese buyers are purchasing homes in the upper San Gabriel Valley. Not just to live in, but to develop. Invest.”

“Wow,” says the second man. “I didn’t realize that?”

At this point Sandy embarks on a 12 minute-long impromptu lecture on the economic, linguistic, and socio-cultural developments of Chinese immigrants in Southern California. His audience adds little more than a couple quick comments. Sandy’s knowledge is hardly getting piqued, when the first young man interrupts and says, “Sir, thank you for sharing, but we need to get going.”

“Oh, well, all right, you two,” he says. “So, just keep in mind, learning Mandarin is actually a sound investment for your children, both locally and globally!”

They hurry from the table to the door. The second man shrugs his shoulders and the first man laughs.

As the two leave, an older, smaller person enters. He is covered from head to toe in dirty clothes and blankets. His tattered hands reach out to the men as they pass. They shrug, in unison.

The tattered man goes from patron to patron, silent and stretching out his hands, palms up. He is generally ignored. Sandy notices and approaches the man.

“Mr. Wong,” he says. “You look like you could use a warm drink. And a sandwich.”

He places an arm around him, walking to the counter, ordering a cold turkey sandwich and a hot coco.

Howard, the barista, frowns.

“Really, Sandy? Mr. Wong?”

“Yes, Howard. Mr. Wong. He’s our friend. As Your Lord and Savior would say, ‘what you’ve done to the least of these you’ve done for me.’ Am I right?” [5]

Howard rolls his eyes, but goes ahead and prepares the order.

As Sandy pays, the old man reaches into his pocket, taking out a small, round, metal object. He places it in Sandy’s hands as Howard gives Mr. Wong the order.

“Time is yours,” Mr. Wong whispers, turning to leave.

Sandy looks at the object.

“Hmm, some kind of a stopwatch,” he says. “This looks like something from the turn of the century. Yes, probably American made, but definitely Swiss movements.”

He fiddles with it. Ornate etchings of birds and flowers decorate its case. Its face, white, unnumbered, marked with dots and lines and a crown at 12:00.

There is only one button.

He presses it.

There is a loud click.

“Wow,” he says. “Did you hear that? It must be some kind of miniature echo chamber in there to generate so much volume.”

He looks up at Howard, but he is standing perfectly still, ignoring him, Sandy presumes.

“You don’t need to be rude,” he says. “I was just going back to my table.”

As Sandy walks towards his old seat, he notices that everyone is standing perfectly still.

“What’s going on?” he asks. “Is this some kind of joke?”

But no one responds. Sandy approaches each person, addressing them, first formally then increasingly frantic. But no one responds. They are utterly immobile. No hands gesturing, no eyes blinking. No breathing even.

Rushing into the kitchen, Sandy bumps into a plate suspended in midair. A server’s frozen hand extends while, a few inches in front of that hand, the plate along with a freshly pressed panini defies gravity.

Sandy stops and flicks at it with his finger. It moves slightly with each flick. He takes the sandwich into his hands.

“Ow, hot!” he exclaims, dropping it on the floor.

Sandy tilts his head, perplexed. Then remembers the stopwatch.

“Could it be?” he says, as he takes the watch out again.

Resting his thumb on the button, he presses again.

Immediately the room goes back into motion. Noises clamor. The server shrieks as the sandwich and plate hit the floor.

“Sandy!” says Howard. “What did you do!?! What the hell are you doing back here!”

“Howard! You have to see this. This watch! It can stop TIME.”

“Look,” says Howard, ignoring Sandy’s comment. “I gotta talk to you. The owners, they’re done. I gotta ask you to leave. They don’t want you hanging out here anymore.”

“What?” says Sandy. “Well, that’s terrible! But…”

He reorients himself to the watch.

“Okay, that’s fine,” says Sandy. “But much more important right now is this watch! It has magic!”

Howard reaches down to pat Sandy on the shoulder.

“I’m really sorry. It’s not up to me.”

“No, wait,” Sandy says. “Look!”

He presses the button, and once again everyone freezes.

He starts to walk around the sitting area, taking jackets, coats, blankets and mufflers from around the shop. He puts them on top of Howard. Then he restarts the watch.

Time starts again. Howard begins talking, but immediately notices that he is covered in coats and scarves, a blanket, Sandy’s hat.

“What the hell?” he mutters.

“See! I stopped time! I put those on you!” Sandy pleads, showing Howard the stopwatch emphatically.

“Look,” says Howard, removing the extra articles. “I don’t know what you’re up to. But I’m serious. You have to leave now.”

The barista begins to push Sandy out of the kitchen. Sandy protests, but to no avail. Still clinging to the stopwatch, Howard is grabbing at his arms, trying to manhandle him out the backdoor.

“Please, Sandoval. You’re getting out of control.”

Sandy tries to wrestle free, yanking against Howards grip. Howard is a young man, an aspiring Hollywood stuntman. He is far stronger physically than Sandy. But Sandy appears to know some martial arts.

“Don’t make me use my Ju Jit Su!” he says.

“You don’t know Ju Jit Su!” says Howard. “You just read that Carlos Gracie book!”

“We’ll see about that!”

Sandy pinches his shoulder blades together and drops his weight as Howard’s grip momentarily loosens. But Howard clutches at Sandy’s right arm, tearing open the hand that clutches the stopwatch.

The watch is flung into the air, clanging off the ceiling then dropping to the floor. Its crystal breaks into a spider web of cracked glass. Inside its many, complex contents rattle, coming undone from their working order.

“No!” screams Sandy. “What did you do?”

He falls to his knees, gathering the stopwatch into his hands. Desperately, Sandy presses the button repeatedly, but the device does not produce its click. He shakes it gently, hearing the sad sound of brokenness resonating from what was too brief his great miracle.

“This is unacceptable! You have no right to destroy my property!”

He turns to the barista, holding the watch out to him.

“You!” he begins, but then sees that Howard is standing perfectly still, still clutching at the air, as if Sandy were still in his arms.

“What?” he says.

“No, no, no. This can’t be…”

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Sandy moves the frozen Howard, wheeling him into the shade.

“There you go, old friend,” he says. “Get that sun out of your eyes.”

Returning to his work, Sandy’s just about got the watch running. For some time, as practice, he’s taken apart and rebuilt several similar stopwatches, which he has procured from all over the world. He has gone as far a Switzerland on a large powerboat, which he carefully studied before setting sail, along with learning to be a competent seaman: his own cook, engineer, navigator, medic. While he was at it, he also read the entirety of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets as well as most of Hemingway’s work.

“So many things to become proficient in,” he says. “Now, I am very literally the world’s foremost expert on stopwatch repair.”

Several parts have been replaced, Sandy feels certain that they are not integral to the primary function of the device.

“The rubies,” he says. “They’re the only things that must not be swapped out.”

17 of them, laid out on the napkin. He stares at them, taking a slow, even breath. As he exhales he rests his chin on in the palm of his hand, and turns his attention to his frozen friend.

“Well, should we take a break? That whole Slav Zizek Ideology & Escapism thing has been really bothering me. Should we take another look at it?” [6]

Sandy slowly places the rubies into a small jewelry bag and seals it. Pushing himself away from the table, he mutters, “Where did I leave that book again?”

 

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NOTES

[1] A customer service representative, Sandy took calls regarding warrantees on the full line of Mac & Brown home appliances. But he inevitably redirected these calls into long conversations around random topics. Most often began by asking, “Hmm, I haven’t seen that area-code before, where are you calling from?” In actuality, Sandy has a thorough knowledge of America’s area codes. Sandy feigned ignorance in order to generate an opening more conducive to discuss possibilities.

[2] As a boy, Sandy’s adoptive father, Marvin Tsai, had him tested for giftedness by the school psychologist. The results showed some modest intellectual talent, but Sandy’s scores fell far below the threshold for the district’s TAG (Talented And Gifted) program. His father, having built much of his hopes around the idea that Sandy would someday be a great leader of men, either in academia or in industry, was unable to accept this conclusion.

Over the course of three years, he intensely focused on training Sandy to improve his intelligence. Together they worked through their entire encyclopedia set. Then moved on to combing through the used textbook section of Hesperian, their local college. At every interval of learning, he drilled Sandy on facts and figures from subjects he was studying. Sandy’s warehouse of knowledge grew to the point that he began to win children’s trivia contests. This culminated in his 2-week reign as champion of the game show Smarty Pants McGee. However, Mr. Tsai did not realize that the standard instrument for measuring IQ in America takes only a 12th of its score from the capacity to regurgitate factual information. When Sandy was given another opportunity to test for the TAG program, he again was rejected.

[3] One topic where Sandy often refrains from comment is romance. All facets of romance seem to elude him: dating, attraction, sex. At one point, in a moment of self-reflection, he sought professional help in diagnosing his lack of relational understanding. His counselor provisionally diagnosed him with Asperger Disorder, noting Sandy’s impressive linguistic capacity in contrast to his lack of social awareness. Sandy found that puzzling, complaining to the counselor that he is actually unusually socially astute. In the days to come, Sandy shared these thoughts with several of his acquaintances, many of whom quietly agreed with the counselor. However, among the small percentage of those needy souls who benefited from Sandy’s nascent generosity, there was an insistence on the warmth and relatedness of this strangely complicated man.

[4] Though he often speaks with authority regarding Chinese and Chinese American issues, Sandy is ethnically Korean. Not much is known about his birth parents. They are believed to be North Korean refugees. His mother, reportedly suffering from several injuries inflicted by KPA border guards, died during childbirth.

His father is unaccounted for, but rumor has it that a grieving NKSOF soldier-defector-widower returned to Pyongyang armed with an array of homemade weapons made mostly of sharpened pencils and piano wire. In an effort to work through his anger and sorrow, he systematically murdered the wives and children of three other soldiers: The first, his immediate superior officer, Lieutenant Cho Hyunmin, who relentlessly humiliated our young future assassin for his sentimentality; the second, the leader of his battalion, Colonel Cho Jihoon, Cho Hyunmin’s grandfather; finally, the third, his friend and confidant, CFC Kim Jinkwan. CFC Kim was unconflicted in his allegiance to the Supreme Leader and reported the young defector’s plans to Lieutenant Cho, beginning a series of events that led to his young bride’s demise.

[5] Howard’s Lord and Savior is the Lord Jesus Christ. Sandy’s reference is to a speech given by Jesus, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Here, Jesus describes a King who rejects a number of his followers for failing to care for him when he was hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned and without a home. These followers objected, saying that they never saw the king in such a state. To which the king replied, referring to all those that are hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned and without a home: “As you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me.” Sandy himself does not ascribe to any particular faith tradition, but maintains a dogged knowledge of Christian theology for use in shaming avowed believers into good behavior.

[6] In one of Sandy’s many attempts to acquire esoteric knowledge, he began reading Zizek after watching the documentary film, The Elvis of Cultural Theory. The book Sandy is looking for is The End of Ideology. Sandy, having spent the entirety of his life, up until the stopwatch, attempting to fill the ideological role of the Know-It-All, is now facing a unique existential scenario: He can and very likely will become a know-it-all, but yet has no social context in which to play this role. He recalls a something Zizek said in an interview once, “Ideology is not only the world we live in, but especially the wrong ways we imagine how to escape.” Sitting with Slav’s words and images, Sandy can’t get over the irony of, even in his new world, where he alone has all access to all things, his impulse is still to consume.

[0] Based on two extraordinarily popular and thought-provoking episodes of the Twilight Zone: “Time Enough at Last”(1959) and “A Kind of a Stopwatch”(1963).

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