by William Wren
He wondered if he had ever been happy. As the morning sun washed over the wooden deck, and over him as well, he thought he must have been, though he couldn’t recall when.
It was not that he was unhappy. He didn’t feel that. Apathetic is how he felt. However, Bronson also felt grumpy. He wondered if that was unhappy in a mild form.
He was sure it was the clock that made him that way. Ever since he had bought it, it had stubbornly read 12:23. He had picked it up at one of the big box stores.
It was an old-fashioned clock with Roman numerals, evenly spaced around its circumference. Two arms, like spears, reached out from the centre—the shorter spear indicating the hour, twelve, and the longer indicating the minutes, twenty-three. It was made to resemble something antique, yet its period look was belied by the back, where two small batteries fit.
It frustrated him to no end. He’d changed the batteries many times to no effect. He moved the spears to indicate the correct time, and it would work, until it reached 12:23 again and stopped.
He’d bought the clock for the patio and hung it by the door. It was meant as an outdoor ornament—designed to work outside, no matter the weather.
Yet it wouldn’t tell time, regardless of what he did. It was infuriating, and evolved into something bordering on obsession. Why would it not work? And what did 12:23 signify? He came to believe it was something crucial. But how could he possibly find out?
Bronson Hobart had become what he had always sworn he would never be: old. Unhappily so. It wasn’t his sixty-seven years that made him that way. He knew that. It was how he felt. Lethargic. Disinterested. Aware of aches and small pains, like those in his back. Too aware. He would have ignored such things before. Not now, though.
He took pills for various ailments, and that annoyed him; but the medical people insisted they were necessary. It had something to do with his heart.
He rarely went anywhere, unlike the young man he once was, and couldn’t feel enthusiasm for much of anything. He felt little emotion when watching calamities and scandals unfold on the news each day.
The only thing that roused him from his funk was that damned clock. He thought he should just get a new one; but for some inexplicable reason, he was determined to figure out the why of the clock. What did 12:23 mean?
He sat on his deck in the warm morning light puzzling over it, as he did every day, repeatedly glancing at the clock that always told the same time.
“You really should get ready.”
Bronson turned to his left.
It was his mother. “Your father is getting impatient. It’s past 9:30.”
“Mom?” he said quietly. She had been dead for at least two decades.
His mother gave him a smile. She was wearing her pale-blue summer slacks and a patterned blouse of rose and blue pastels against a background of white. She also had her cream-coloured sweater on, with a tissue tucked in her left sleeve. Around her neck, her glasses hung from a delicate chain as if a necklace.
“You know your father,” she said. “He wants to get there as fast as possible and as soon as possible.”
“The cottage, of course. You know that.”
She looked at Bronson as if he were being deliberately dull-witted. He was a bright boy, she had always said, and she’d never liked it when he did the foolish, unthinking things other less bright people might do. “Use the brains God gave you” was an expression often on her lips.
“The cottage,” Bronson said, a bit numb. “Right.”
For the first time in a while, he completely forgot the clock.
“Get moving,” his father said. “I want to get out of here right away.”
Turning to his right, Bronson looked at his father standing in his usual grey slacks, white shirt, and beige sweater. He stood with his slight slouch, but Bronson could sense his nervous energy. He wanted to go. Now. It was in his eyes, which could be seen even behind the bifocal glasses—the ones he’d worn, before he died over thirty years ago.
“Last time,” his father continued, “it took two hours and thirty-seven minutes. I want to get that down to two and a half hours. I think I’ll take a different route this time. I’m pretty sure I can shave at least five minutes off. We’ll go by Walkerton.”
His father had always been a demon driving, like a man possessed. His uncles too. Drives to the cottage were never leisurely, country tours. They were races. For the men in the family, it seemed that was the only point in going. That, and the golfing.
“The cottage,” Bronson mumbled again and again. “Okay.” He stood up.
“I’ve already put your bag in the car,” his father said. “We’re all loaded up. We can leave now.” He then turned and headed to the driveway where the old burgundy Mercury sat waiting. Except it looked relatively new.
Bronson stared at it. Was it one of those retro cars, an old vehicle someone had fixed up? It was the car they’d had back in the late sixties. He hadn’t seen it in decades. And hadn’t his father gotten rid of it when he got that new car? The Buick? Somewhere around 1971?
Whatever it was, all three got in. His father got behind the wheel; his mother sat on the passenger side. Bronson got in the back, sitting behind his father, where he had always sat as a child.
His father started the engine, then looked at his wristwatch. “Mark the time, Ruth,” he said. “9:51. Let’s see how much time we can take off this little jaunt.” Then he backed out, and they were off. Bronson was as confused as he’d ever been.
The drive was peculiar, though only Bronson seemed to notice. His father had his window fully open, elbow resting in a crook on the door and partly out the window, cigarette held in his hand. His right hand rested on the wheel. His mother looked out the side window, and every now and then would say things like, “Oh look! Cows!”
And yes, there would be cows out in a field, grazing. But the countryside was wrong. They had left Bronson’s house in New Brunswick and were now in southern Ontario country. That would be a sixteen-hour drive. How could they be in Ontario already? How could they get to the cottage in his father’s desired two and a half hours? It was impossible.
Equally impossible were the tobacco fields they passed. Who grew tobacco anymore? That had ended years ago when the lawsuits and anti-smoking campaigns took hold. He remembered the fields they had passed when he was a kid and they had driven to the cottage from Toronto, where he hadn’t lived in over fifty years. His brother-in-law had spent a summer picking tobacco. “Hard, dirty work,” he’d said.
Yet they passed tobacco fields. And cornfields. And fields with cows, as his mother kept pointing out. Horses too. Where the hell were they?
They were driving through familiar places, passing the reserve, approaching the town. But how? They had left New Brunswick and had only been in the car a little over two hours.
They entered the town and drove down the remembered streets, turned onto the familiar cottage road with the peek-a-boo sightings of the lake to the right, seen through gaps in the trees and cottages and intersections. They passed Parker’s, the corner store he and his cousins would walk to where he’d get Dr Pepper and red liquorice and those donuts he loved, the honey ones they brought in every morning from the bakery. For a moment, he considered asking his father to stop the car.
And then they pulled into the cottage. The white, bungalow cottage. The wooden fence still bordered it, the white picket one, though it had been taken down years ago.
They stopped, and his father looked at his watch. “Ah ha!” he cried. “Took five minutes off! Would have been more if I hadn’t gotten behind that damn truck. Two hours and thirty-two minutes. Mark it down, Ruth: 12:23!”
Bronson froze. He didn’t know what to think.
Sitting in deck chairs to the left of the cottage in a circle of sun, close to the cluster of cedars that Bronson and his sister used to climb, were his aunts, June and Louise, and their husbands, Uncle Mike and Uncle Robert.
Robert was Louise’ second husband. Behind his back, Bronson and his cousins used to call him Cowboy Bob because he loved country music, particularly George Strait, which explained why he wore that big white Stetson.
Cowboy Bob was the uncle everyone welcomed into the family but who never quite fit in. He was a salesman—Bronson couldn’t remember whether it was insurance or cars—with a blue-collar quality he brought to a family of well-educated white collars.
Bronson had always felt a bit disappointed in himself when he secretly mocked his uncle because he’d genuinely liked him. He was a straight shooter, as Uncle Robert would put it.
Bronson was increasingly uneasy. Not one of his aunts or uncles was living anymore, yet they were all there, rising from their chairs and walking over to greet Bronson and his mom and dad. Everyone was smiling and happy, arms stretched out for hugs. His Aunt Louise swallowed him in her arms. “Oh, Bronson. I’m so glad you’re here!”
Aunt June hugged him too and gave him a peck on the cheek. “Bronson! You’re so handsome now.” Always a bit diffident, Uncle Mike stretched out his hand for a shake. “Good seeing you, Bronson.”
“Well, don’t you look the dandy?” Uncle Robert called, walking up and giving him a light push on the shoulder. “How’ve ya been, Bronny?”
“Just great, Uncle Robert,” he answered, cringing at the name. He hated Bronny. Except when Ali called him that. When Alison called him Bronny, he was always happy.
The cottage’s front door opened. An older woman—grey hair tied back, apron wrapped around her midsection, and hands rolling over a washcloth as if it were worry beads—stepped out.
“Grandma,” Bronson whispered to himself.
She turned to the family on the lawn and called, “Lunch! Get in here, and get it! It’s 12:23!” She went to go inside, then turned back to shout, “Make it snappy!”
He stared with eyes wide. He’d been what? Eight? Nine when she’d passed away? Yet he recalled her perfectly—her voice, her smell, her way. And there she was, as she had always been. Matriarch of the whole damned family.
What was that scent of hers that he had always equated with being old, though not in a bad way? A comforting way. Was it lilac? Lavender? Rose water?
He thought of moth balls, then laughed. No, that was Mom, he told himself. Mom and her cedar chest.
Suddenly, Mitzi appeared like unleashed lighting, racing in circles around the house and finally, with a bark when she saw Bronson, running right up as if determined to knock him over. But she made a last second pivot, grass and dirt flying in the air, going around him and coming to a stop behind. She then trotted up to him happily, tongue out, tail flailing like an urgent announcement.
His questions and worries vanished like mist. Grandma. Mitzi. He was astounded and happy, though he didn’t realize it.
My god, he thought. How he’d loved that woman. How he still did. And that dog? Love was inadequate to describe how he felt about her.
Bronson was grinning happily.
A buffet was spread out on the dining room table. It was as Bronson was gathering up a plate—Grandma’s egg salad sandwiches with mayonnaise and Dijon, lettuce on top, tomato and cucumber slices on the side, carrot and celery spears too—that he heard the voice. It came from the kitchen. It was unmistakable. And the laugh left no doubt.
He could also hear Uncle Robert singing some country song.
Bronson walked in and saw her. She stood by the sink. In a swift half-twirl, she turned to him with that smile—the one people give you when they have a secret, or know something you don’t, or tease you in a way that you can’t figure out. It was almost a saucy look. And her hazel eyes were bright with awareness of his confusion.
Standing at the sink, she wore a dress, the tawny one. An apron too. She turned back to the sink, put her hands in the water and suds, and returned to washing the dishes.
“It’s about time,” Alison said with a laugh. “It’s 12:23.”
Uncle Robert sat in a chair by the table. “That’s some girl you’ve got there, Bronny,” he said with a smile. “You did good.”
She wasn’t “his girl.” He didn’t know what they were. What had they been when they had been together? And had they ever really been together? He didn’t know then; he didn’t know now. But he felt something approaching joy at seeing her.
“I’m almost done here,” she said over her shoulder. “When I am, we’ll sit out back on the patio. While the sun’s out. Bring the dog.”
Bronson took his plate and went out the back door to the flagstone patio where he sat on the porch swing, plate on his lap, surrounded by cedars and pines. Where on earth am I? he wondered. Then he remembered what Ali had said. “Mitzi!”
The dog raced from around the house to the patio. She stood panting for a minute or two as Bronson petted her. She then sat back on her haunches, laid down, and stretched out in the sun.
“Oh, I was never happy,” Alison said when she’d joined him. “Not then. But you were, and wasn’t that wonderful? Being happy, and not even knowing it? Too busy being happy to think about it.”
They sat side by side on the porch swing as it slowly swayed back and forth. The dog lay stretched before them.
“Why weren’t you happy?” he asked, his forehead creasing.
She tilted her head back and laughed. “I don’t know,” she said. “Some questions don’t have answers.”
“Was it me?”
“No, no. Not you. You were my reprieve. It was probably my family. And the migraines. And the woman I’d been. It was a huge weight. Something in my head almost always there. That weight. It killed me in the end. Well, the migraines did. I had a brain operation that didn’t work.”
Bronson shifted a little closer on the swing. His eyes were on the dog, but his attention was on Alison.
“Before that, I had my moments,” Ali continued. “Like those times we went for brunch after church at the café. Or when I went skiing with the others, in Banff. You didn’t go. You didn’t ski and didn’t want to try. But I went and loved it! And later when we went for drinks. Well, I had hot chocolate. I didn’t drink liquor, as you know. Not after I gave myself to Jesus. He made me happy too. Jesus has that way . . . because he loves you, whatever you do.”
There it was—the Jesus thing he could never get past. The reason they had never been together even though they had seemed to be. Together, with Jesus between ensuring they weren’t.
When Alison went back inside, he decided to take the dog and head to the lake. He hadn’t seen it in years, and loved being down there. When he got to it, he smiled because it hadn’t changed.
Mitzi, who had been dead some twenty-nine years, ran alongside Bronson, chasing waves at the shore or gulls along the sand. He tried to puzzle out the strange reality he found himself in. It was troubling and, were he to be honest, a little scary. “None of this should be,” he said. “But it is.”
From behind him, he heard someone call, “Yo!”
Turning, he saw it was Uncle Robert farther down the beach. “Yo, Bronny!”
Bronson waved to him, though he was annoyed by the interruption. He wanted to be alone. Uncle Robert was striding towards him over the sand, wearing bathing trunks, a short-sleeved shirt, and the white Stetson. He had sunglasses on and was singing “Amarillo by Morning.”
He stopped singing as he got to Bronson. “I see Mitzi’s having a fine old time.”
“Yes, she’s always loved the beach.”
“You look troubled, Bronny. Like you’re doing some worryin’. What’s up?”
Bronson shook his head. “I don’t know,” he answered. “What’s with 12:23? Whenever I ask someone the time, or ask when something is going to happen, like lunch, they always say the same thing: 12:23.”
“Everything is 12:23.”
“How can that be possible? It doesn’t make sense.”
Uncle Robert tilted his Stetson back and took off his sunglasses. “You really don’t understand?”
“No,” Bronson said. “I don’t.”
“Everything ends at 12:23,” his uncle said. “When you finally remember.”
Bronson lay on his back, stretched out on the deck, the noon-hour sun beaming down on him. His chest felt as if it was exploding. Then the pain slowly eased, though it remained dull and persistent.
His head was tilted in a way that when he opened his eyes, he was looking directly at the clock. Briefly, he marvelled. It read 12:20.
The pain welled up again, in his chest, excruciating this time. He shut his eyes and made a low moan; then the pain passed, and he waited. It became dull again, but he waited another moment.
Opening his eyes once more, he saw the clock now read 12:22. Or maybe just past. It was hard to tell because concentration was difficult. But again, he marvelled because he was certain the hands had moved. Though he couldn’t see it, they were advancing.
He wished Mitzi were with him. And his mom and dad. And Ali, especially her. He wished his aunts and uncles were with him. And Grandma. And Uncle Robert. He realized he had been wishing that wish for years.
Cowboy Bob would know what to do. He’d know what to say, the way a straight shooter would.
What was it he’d said? “Everything ends at 12:23.” Yes, that was it. But he’d said something else. What was it? Then Bronson remembered.
“You know Bronny, you never know when you’re happy. But you always know when you’re unhappy. It’s all you can think about. It preys on you, like wolves at a feed. Or bill collectors. It fills everything. It’s all you think about.
“Happy is different. Who the hell wants to think about whether they’re happy or not when they’re happy? When they’re just bein’ it? Bein’ so gloriously, beautifully happy? That’s what 12:23 is—bein’ happy. All that time you never think about. All that gold you forgot.”
He’d laughed and added, “Unhappy locks you inside yourself. Happy lets you out.”
Uncle Robert had been smiling, and now Bronson, on his back and stretched out on the deck, his chest gone all to hell, smiled too. “Everything ends at 12:23,” he whispered. “When you remember.”
Then the pain stopped. And the wishing stopped.