The Clock Museum

Anthony Varallo

The children do not remember the Clock Museum. The Clock Museum was dull, boring, a snore. To visit there, as the children did more times than they realize, was something to be dreaded, like pop quizzes or the end of summer vacation. So who can blame the children if they can’t recall the permission slips they were required to ask their parents to sign, or the shuddering bus that ferried them to the Clock Museum’s unimpressive parking lot, where their teachers divided them into groups of two before ushering them to the museum’s front steps? The children wore bright T-shirts for the occasion, a field trip ritual, as were the bag lunches the children dropped, one by one, into long coolers choked with ice.

In the lobby, the children were greeted by the elderly couple who ran the museum, Mr. and Mrs.–but who can remember their names? Mr. and Mrs. ___ were the oldest people the children had ever seen. Older-than-grandparents old. The kind of old not reported anywhere in the children’s news of the world, on TV or in movies or books, or, as Mr. and Mrs. ___’s silver teeth and sunken posture would have them know, in their imaginations. The couple told the children the tedious story of the museum’s history — the oldest clock museum in the world!–as the children fidgeted, snickered, and endured their teachers’ admonishing shhhs. The children glimpsed priceless clocks with the same looks they afforded canned goods. The children listened to the story of the master clockmaker, whose home this museum once was, as if the elderly couple had opened the dictionary to a random page and begun reading it aloud. So much nothing had happened in the world before the children arrived to enliven it.

Mr. and Mrs. ___ led the children into a room where tall clocks were encased in glass displays. They invited the children to get as close as they would like to the “timepieces” without touching the glass. If the children touched the glass, poor Mrs. ___ was going to have to spend the whole evening cleaning, Mr. ___ said, and flashed his silver teeth. The children wouldn’t want poor Mrs. ___ to spend the whole evening cleaning, would they? The children leaned closer anyway, their T-shirts reflecting the display’s wan glow, although the children would not remember this. If the children remembered anything at all, it was when Mrs. ___ held up a finger, as if to say wait a moment, and then all the clocks chimed together in unison. Mrs. ___ closed her eyes and smiled.

But why did the children have to visit the Clock Museum at all? Clearly there were better options, like the pretzel factory where you got to eat all the free pretzels you wanted, or the apple orchard, where they plied you with warm cider and apple donuts and let you run wild along the orchard’s bee-drunk avenues? Even the art museum had a gift shop where you could buy those tiny snow globes that glittered when shook, until all the snow settled depressingly to the bottom. If the children were to learn why they must visit the Clock Museum, they would discover that it was the town’s collective guilt that compelled them there, an apology for the town’s indifference to that listless place, a penance for all of their parents’ forgotten field trips to the museum, and for all the occasions the townspeople had driven by the Clock Museum and thought, Who would ever want to go there? It was also free.

Because the children did not know why they must visit the Clock Museum, and because they would later struggle to recall much about it, they did not remember the last room. The last room — the former workshop of the original owner, Mr. and Mrs. ___ told them as they entered — was cooler than the others, windowless and dim. Mr. ___ instructed the children to gather round the lone clock in the center of the room, whose large, metallic hands were open, free from enclosure. Had the children better recollection of what happened next, they would have found it strange that Mr. and Mrs. ___ enjoined them to put their hands upon the clock. If only they could recall the feel of their fingertips upon those hands. If only they could remember the moment Mr. ___ instructed them to push or pull the hands in either direction they wished. In the darkness, Mr. ___’s teeth dimly gleamed. But the children did not remember. The children put their fingers to the hands, pulled and pushed, pushed and pulled.

At lunchtime, the children’s teachers spread blankets across the Clock Museum’s weedy lawn. The teachers told the children to select their bag lunches from the coolers, but when the teachers opened the coolers, they found that the ice had melted to water, or had disappeared altogether. How had the ice melted so quickly? Had the water evaporated? The children fished out their soaked or soggy lunches, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches stale inside Ziploc bags, baloney and cheese furred with green and gray mold. What had happened to the sandwiches while they were in the museum? How long had the children been inside? How was it possible that, with such a monotonous tour through such a wearying museum, the children seemed to have lost all track of time?

Anthony Varallo is the author of What Did You Do Today?, winner of the 2023 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, forthcoming from the University of North Texas Press in Fall 2023. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker “Daily Shouts,” One Story, The Sun, STORY, American Short Fiction, New England Review, and elsewhere. Find him online at @TheLines1979