Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Harvey Huddleston

Elliot wanted one of those watches with the black round dial so Andrew told him to check out Jacks.  Sure enough, there it was at a decent price.  Andrew was always good for things like that.

It was exactly the kind of chunky steel watch Elliot had been looking for.  But then after wearing it a few days, he noticed that it was banging around loose on his wrist.  The problem was that the band had a fixed clasp that folded back on itself and couldn’t be adjusted.  Andrew said that it needed a link or two removed and that Elliot should take it to a watch repair.

Know any around here?

There’s one on Forty Fifth just east of Times Square.  South side of the street.

Close enough, Elliot thought.  Only nine blocks south and one avenue over so he took the walk down there during lunch.

The open storefront door looked like it led to a small shop but once inside Elliot found himself in a huge room with a two-floor high ceiling.  The room was empty except for the watch repair which was tucked into a corner up front next to the window.  Random shelves lined the walls that stretched back to where the light was dimmer and a few derelicts hung around.  But then again, thought Elliot, they could be customers.

As Elliot approached the counter the red-faced man behind it didn’t look up.  He seemed preoccupied with something as he stood over a workbench scattered with watches, jewelry and other gadgetry in various stages of repair.  Dozens of tools were mixed in among the chaos, most of them unrecognizable except for a few screwdrivers and a needle nosed pliers.  In deference to the intense concentration on the man’s face, Elliot didn’t speak right away but waited to be acknowledged.

The man’s hands would hover over his bench as he decided on the right tool.  But then, just when he began to reach for it, that tool would be rejected.  After pondering some more he’d begin to reach for something else but then that too wasn’t it.  Elliot saw the casement of a watch with its exposed movement clamped into a small vise.  That was reassuring in terms of the man’s skill but Elliot was beginning to wonder how long this might take.

He was just getting ready to speak up when something flashed in the corner of his eye.  He looked around but nothing.  Then he looked up at the ceiling in time to see a bird swoop across the room and dip down to fly out the door.  Elliot looked at the repairman but he was still pondering so Elliot didn’t comment, fearing that might delay his decision even longer.  Just then the bird zipped back into the room and made a circle overhead before landing on the counter next to Elliot.  The bird pecked at his feathers and studied the watch repairman, in much the same way Elliot had been doing.

In their common state of being ignored, Elliot thought that the bird might want some acknowledgement so Elliot decided to give him a pat.  He let his right index finger down on the back of the bird’s head, but only gently, very gently.  At that the bird turned to him with a shriek.  Then it began hopping up and down on the counter, its eyes boring into Elliot’s with its feathers sticking straight out, shrieking and protesting the outrage that had been done to him.  Who are you?!  Who do you think you are to touch me like that when I was just standing here minding my own business?!  YOU, the filthiest excrement from a Manhattan sewer!  And YOU — YOU presume to touch ME?!

As the bird continued to shriek and stomp, the repairman broke away from his pondering and turned to Elliot.

I didn’t do anything!  I just touched him!  He was sitting there like he wanted a pat so I just touched his head!  That’s all I did!

The repairman shook his head in disgust and waved with his hand.  Don’t pay attention to him.  That’s what he does!  Then mumbling what sounded like a Russian curse, the repairman turned back to his bench.

Does he live here?

He comes and goes.

Does he have a name?

Caravaggio.  Famous Italian singer.

He sings?


Uh…  I think Caravaggio was a painter.


Okay.  Can you fix my watch?  It needs a link in the band removed.

Let me see.

Elliot handed his watch to the repairman and he looked it over.

It’s a very cheap watch.

Okay but can you fix it?

Give me time.

Should I come back?

I need a tool.

Do you have the tool?

It’s here somewhere.

All I need is one link taken out of the wristband.


Do you think you can fix it?

What’s the rush?

No rush.  But I’m on lunch break and have to get back.

Two minutes.

Take five minutes.  I’ll wait.

At that, the Russian took a long silver punch from his pile of tools and then clamped the watch into a vise.  As he searched around for something else, Elliot saw that the bird was again standing on the counter next to him, preening in the same way he was before getting his head touched.  Ah, thought Elliot, so that’s his deal.  He wants me to touch him again so he can scream and throw another fit like I’m the one who’s at fault here.  No way, buddy, I’m not falling for that again.  Not this time.  Go find somebody else to play your game.

Two hard blows from a hammer and the bird took off out the door.  Elliot saw a pin drop from the watch band.  A link fell out too and with two more hard blows the band was linked back together.  The Russian handed the watch back to Elliot.

Try this.


Elliot left, thinking not bad for five dollars.  When he got back to the office, he told Andrew about the bird throwing a tantrum and going off on him.  Andrew listened and then smiled which left Elliot wondering if he was amused by the story or whether he’d known all along what would happen when he sent him there.

The Trade Towers came down about two weeks later.  Andrew and Elliot spent that morning checking everyone in the office off on the white board to make sure they all had a way home.  Wayne went missing that day or, at least, Elliot had no memory of him.

Wayne’s claim to fame was having been a project manager on Boston’s “Big Dig,” which became known as one of the biggest boondoggles ever.  It cost billions of dollars in overruns and took ten years longer than expected to complete.  Wayne was now boss in the project management office but all he really cared about were muscle cars and his wife’s fledgling opera career.  And his hat.  He always wore a cowboy hat in public like that time Elliot went to see his wife perform Verdi at Lincoln Center’s second stage.

In fact, Verdi was how Elliot had gotten the job.  When he’d interviewed with Wayne, they’d talked about computer programs but then Wayne pushed a paper and pen in front of him and told him to write down Verdi.  Elliot asked if he meant the composer and Wayne nodded.  So Elliot wrote it down and then Wayne asked if he could start that afternoon.  It was only later that Elliot realized he’d been hired because he’d spelled Verdi correctly and that Wayne had probably had some trouble in that regard with a previous employee.

On the morning the Towers fell, everyone eventually found a way home and it was about noon when Andrew and Elliot left the office.  It had been on TV all morning and even though he’d seen it over and over, Elliot still had trouble believing the Towers were gone.  He walked through Times Square on his way downtown.  It was packed sidewalk to sidewalk with no one making a sound.  Some people were looking in store windows because that’s why they’d come to New York and didn’t know what else to do.  Thousands shuffled along and milled about in a massive throng until someone screamed out over the silence, “SO WHAT IS THIS?  WORLD WAR FUCKING THREE?”

Walking downtown Elliot stayed on Seventh Avenue because he knew that Seventh would give him the answer he needed.  He couldn’t remember at what street the Towers came into view but they always did at some point on Seventh going south.  He passed Fortieth Street and no Towers, then Thirtieth and still no Towers.  By the time he was at Twentieth Street, it had finally sunk in.  The Towers really were gone.

Some friends who lived below Canal came to the apartment on Sixteenth.  They watched as horror upon horror played out on TV for the rest of the day.  They wandered about, sometimes going out into the garden to sniff at the sulfurous fumes that became stronger as the day wore on.  They traded glances as if they might puke and later that day a few more buildings came down in real time on TV.  As night settled in they tired of saying the same things to each other.  No one was listening.  They wondered what they should do or if there was anything to be done.  Go home and stay home.  No survivors were reported.

One day not long after, Elliot told Andrew about an old cop on Sixth Avenue directing traffic and yelling at people crossing the street to stop looking up.  “Move along, people!  Nothing to see up there!”  And how whenever he said it, even more people would look up at the buildings.  Andrew and Elliot had a good laugh at the old New York cop, thinking that if people would just listen to him and stop thinking about it then everything would be okay.

After about six months, things above Fourteenth Street had gotten pretty much back to normal while lower Manhattan was still a disaster that got worse the farther south you went.  Elliot’s watch had been stopping and starting so it didn’t take a genius to figure out what was wrong.  He went back to the Russian on Forty Fifth Street to get the battery replaced.

The watch repair was still there with the door still open even though it was cold that day.  Elliot walked in and saw the random empty shelves stretching back into the dimmer light where a derelict or two were still hanging around.  The Russian wasn’t staring at his bench and pondering but glanced sideways at Elliot as he approached.  Elliot slipped the watch off his wrist and handed it to him.

It needs a new battery.

The Russian looked at the watch and then turned to the cacophony of tools still scattered about.  He found a small instrument with a hook at the end and holding the watch in his hand — no vise this time —  he began prying off the back of the watch.

Is the bird still here?

What bird?


The Russian paused at his work. 

He left.  Going back to the watch, he added.  … Never came back…

Back at the office Andrew passed Elliot’s cubicle and Elliot called out to him.  Andrew came back and Elliot mentioned that he’d gone to the Russian during lunch to get a new watch battery.  Andrew didn’t answer but cocked his head as if to hear more.

The bird was gone.  Flew off and never came back.

Andrew looked at Elliot for a few seconds and then nodded.  He then went on with what he was doing and Elliot did too.

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