This Old Watch

Published January 13, 2014

by Dinah Lenney

This old watch isn’t really that old, not in the sense of family heirlooms. It isn’t a watch at all, in fact. It’s only the casing, the exterior, the glass rimmed in gold, smooth but for the notch where it would have clicked onto its back, and engraved: Tiffany, in tiny letters, and D. L. M. in bigger ones—my married initials—my middle name lost to me with the gift of the watch itself. And what happened, I wonder, to its back, to the face and the mechanism in between, to the soul of the watch, a white oval with Arabic numerals, and that little knob on the side—or wait, there wasn’t a knob, no, the watch worked on a battery. A second hand? I think not. Still, I can hear it. The heart of it, excised and removed, ticks in my head like a phantom limb. And somehow, for some reason, I have kept this piece of gold-rimmed glass on a ruined leather band—not the original, no, the band was replaced over and over: this is the last of them, and on its last legs to boot, its tongue curling, its seams worn to no color at all.

This old casing, from that old watch, was one of a pair: one for me, one for my husband (his, a circle, was larger—just as elegant but less delicate), wedding gifts from my Grandpa Charlie, my mother’s father. Charlie—enormous and bald—built like a stacking toy with limbs, thick and brown as a pair of trunks, and the skin on his shins scaly, shiny, stretched tight as though about to split and tear. With no neck to speak of, my grandpa’s freckled head balanced atop his immense middle like a ball—sometimes mustached, always bespectacled—his eyes huge behind tortoise shell rims. Charlie of the smoke-cured laugh; Charlie of the wet, wet kisses; Charlie tanned to leather, mottled and scarred from the removal of various growths. Charlie on Weight Watchers, Charlie with a drink in his hand, Charlie, poolside, but only occasionally, watching me swim the whole length underwater. Charlie in a condo in Florida—for as long as I remember, that’s where I went to see my grandfather, in Miami, where he lived with his second wife (a sunbaked woman in fluorescent linen shifts), where everything smelled of heat and cigarettes and air conditioning and Bain de Soleil.

Charlie, I’m told, was a genius. Invented, says Leah, my mother, those windowed envelopes, the ones that come with bills, no need to address the return. Fold it in half and face it the right way, stamp and send, just that simple. And though he never went to college, never had a music lesson in his life—Charlie played the piano like a pro, could play anything by ear, he only needed to hear it once, whatever it was, so goes the myth. Except: Grandpa, I’d ask, can you play this? Can you play that? Turned out he was fluent, yes, in the standards of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. Charlie could play straight through all of Rodgers and Hammerstein, no slouch he, with Hart or Gershwin or Kern. But Elvis, Chuck Berry, the Beatles? He couldn’t hear them—couldn’t speak in those rhythms or chords.

Ruth, the second wife, died. And Charlie lived alone in the condo in Miami. But once I was in high school, my parents—my mother and stepfather—stopped flying us down for tropical vacations. Though my sister was a toddler, my brothers and I were, by that time, obligated to various clubs and teams. Could be, while I was in college, my siblings (all from the second marriage) went back to Florida—maybe so—but I’m almost certain I didn’t see Charlie between my high school and college graduations. Still, he and I were good correspondents, although my letters were full of mistakes—cross outs, arrows, words penned between the lines—whereas Grandpa’s were clean and signed with a flourish. From college, what did I write to him about? Classes, mostly. Roommates, boyfriends, the weather. After I moved into the city, I waxed self-important about acting, singing, studying voice. And Charlie encouraged me; as long as I kept up with my music, he wrote, I would never be lonely. But now when I saw him, on the rare occasions when he came north, and asked him to sit down at the piano, it was, I supposed, for his sake, not mine. At twenty-something, I’d outgrown him, I thought: I knew my repertoire and my keys, and he wasn’t easy in any of them, didn’t know how to use rubato. You play, Grandpa, I’d demur. I just want to hear you. He’d oblige, and if he missed me on the vocals, unwilling as I was to switch octaves in order to get through “Climb Every Mountain” or “Some Enchanted Evening,” he didn’t let on. I’ve only recently wondered—too vexed at the time (also vaguely ashamed of myself for letting him down)—if Charlie wasn’t actually relieved. Never occurred to me then that he’d been indulging me for years; he didn’t need some amateur straining for the high notes, sullying his glissandos, wavering sharp or flat and insulting his perfect ear.

As expected, he entertained at our wedding. Just after the ceremony and before the band arrived, Charlie took off his jacket, sat himself down, the sweat running from his crown and into his ears, and banged out “When the Saints,” “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” and “Almost Like Being in Love” to as many guests as could squeeze into the room. In one of the photos, I’m standing behind him in backless white jacquard, hands clasped behind me. But I wouldn’t have been wearing the watch, not with my shimmering dress and my new gold ring. So when did I first put it on? Later in the evening, maybe. Although it might have been days before, since it was Leah who delivered the watches in narrow blue Tiffany boxes before Charlie arrived. “From Grandpa,” she said. He’d decided to give them to us, his and hers, and my mother had been dispatched to the Fifth Avenue store to choose them, to have them wrapped and ready. I’d never owned anything so fine and meant expressly for me—not at all like inheriting a piece of old jewelry—this was different: a new Tiffany watch, a grown-up present, meant for everyday wear. And I wore it every day for a decade at least, as did my husband, who lost his first.

And that’s part of the story. How do you hold on to something that has so little to do with who you really are? Our lives were hardly Tiffany. We hadn’t meant to move west, not for any length of time. We’d grown up in the east, had respectable gigs in New York, and friends and family, and separate apartments on the Upper East Side. But two weeks into our vacation-slash-reconnaissance mission, I was cast in a play. Just like that, we were living together. The work was in L.A. for both of us, no pretending otherwise. For me: auditions, rehearsals, occasional shoots; for Fred: screenwriting—on an IBM selectric in a walk-in closet off our empty breakfast nook where we didn’t have a table. We dined, therefore, side by side on the living room sofa—out of cartons more often than not, since, six nights a week, Fred delivered Chinese food. And I—I hostessed in a trendy restaurant frequented by movie stars. Our day jobs, we called them, though we went off to work in the late afternoons. No surprise, we didn’t hold on to those jobs, though we did hold on to the watches. And somehow I believed that mine defined me. The watch—not the beat-up wagon, not the tiny apartment, not the mismatched china, not that sofa—upholstered in cardboard—certainly not the bed we bought cheap in a strip mall on Pico Boulevard, which I subsequently dressed in linens we couldn’t afford, horrified as I was by the way the mattress reflected the afternoon light when we got it up onto its boxsprings. As if a high-thread count could redeem us. As if we needed to be redeemed. I assured myself that we did not, though we lived in a marginal neighborhood, though we survived on tips, though we wouldn’t have predicted and couldn’t have accepted that we’d never know a moment of security in our whole adult lives, I (not we) imagined that I (hence, we) deserved Tiffany watches.

It isn’t even that I resolved to rise to the occasion. I was in that moment, I told myself, just the sort of person to be pushing my way through the heavy doors and crossing the carpet (so thick, so plush) at Tiffany’s (the store on Wilshire Boulevard near the Beverly Hills Hotel), to ask once a year for customer service, please, since once a year the watch needed maintenance or repair. Never mind those women behind the glass cases, wearing good leather pumps and their mothers’ pearls, I actually enjoyed the idea that they thought me bohemian (as if they were thinking about me at all). The thing was, I didn’t need to be convinced that I was absolutely the kind of girl to wake up in the morning and put on that watch. I was my grandfather’s granddaughter, wasn’t I? His first and his favorite? No need to prove myself, but if there were, I’d have told you it was only a matter of time.

But. One day I put the watch in the pocket of my jeans (to wash the dishes? To water my kitchen garden?) and my jeans in the washing machine with a nice, full load. Later, I transferred the darks to the dryer, cleaned the lint from the mesh, and let the machine run for an hour or so on the extra-dry setting. And when I pulled the clothes from the drum and into my wicker basket, there was my watch, my wedding gift from Charlie (who’d been dead for years), shrunken and shriveled and separated from its heart. And here is the frame, a piece of glass on a band, as if time itself had been washed away, time and history and all my notions about the person I was. See here, I’ve put it on, strapped the twisted old band around my wrist: half past a freckle, quarter to a hair.

There is more about Charlie. There is the night before the wedding when, straight from La Guardia airport, he walked into the living room to find my grandmother, his first wife, doing the crossword puzzle with an unlit cigarette balanced between her lips, and how she said, “Well, hello Grandpa,” and he said, “Well, hello Grandma,” as if they’d seen each other yesterday, as if it hadn’t been over fifteen years. Then there is the moment after the wedding—a limo at the curb, waiting to whisk us away like in the movies—when Charlie rose to his full six-foot-three-inch height and gripped my skinny groom above the elbow with one of his gargantuan, spotted hands. “You take care of our baby,” he said. And Freddy told him, “I will, sir,” as if they’d not just read the same script but rehearsed it too.

And we chuckled in the back of the car afterwards. Nervously. Like anybody’s taking care of anybody, we said. And, we’ll take care of each other, we said. We were wearing our watches by then, both of us—as if to mark the start of the thing—though it’s not like I need one now to remind me how long it’s been since all that transpired, or to wonder what happened to the time.