“On the Stroke of the Hour” by H. Dorton

Original fiction produced in CW 205:  Introduction to Creative Writing with Dr. Carlos Dews — Spring Semester 2010

“On the Stroke of the Hour”

Maurice’s walls quaked twice every 60 minutes—once on the stroke of the hour, once at half past.  The faint little suggestion of an apartment stood, small but strong, 96 yards from the train tracks.  Years ago, the landlady, obviously exhausted and therefore lying through her coffee-stained teeth, had told him that he would easily “adjust to the schedule” and that despite the noise, the “convenient location should speak for itself.”  Whatever the location was saying, though, Maurice was unable to hear over the ornery trains that he never actually got used to.

He was simple, twice married and twice divorced.  He kept fish in a tank for company and fish in the freezer for dinner.  A retired mechanic, he was already immune to the fetor of old grease that lingered around the train station.  But on good days, the smell, which his memory rendered ambrosial, would creep back into his nostrils and he would sort of smile.  His bones had worked nicely in tandem for 62 years, and other than when he broke his wrist on the tennis court at 11, had never given him trouble.  But sometime after his birthday, April 7th, he noticed that they weren’t getting along quite so well anymore within his slender frame.

He read the newspaper but only for the crossword puzzle.  The balcony of his place had one chair and one plastic table, which at 8:15 AM became his sacred crossword workspace.

Maurice’s most pressing task each day was to fill in each letter.  First across, then down.  He delighted in identifying what he called “pocket words,” usually three letters, that only existed so that longer words could make sense.  ___ Maria (3 letters).  They were in every puzzle.   He was mostly quiet, but he would say pocket words to himself throughout the day, perhaps as reminders that small things preceded bigger ones.

Despite its location, Maurice didn’t mind his tiny apartment.  It would have been cramped if he had retained anything that reminded him of anything else.  But other than his fish tank, glowing placid purple in the night, the only superfluous things he kept were his hat from Germany and the ticket stub from the single time he had ever glided down the tracks 96 yards away.

It was 8:24 AM in June and Maurice was carefully placing letters in tiny boxes when the girl ran through the sloppy combination of grass and concrete below his balcony.  She was carrying her shoes in her left hand and a piece of paper in her right.  He smiled as her head darted back and forth.

“Excuse me!” she yelped, “Do you have the time?  I have a new job and a real schedule and my train and I—well, do you know what time it is!?”

He kindly checked his watch, chuckling at how frazzled she was.  “Five minutes ‘til the 8:30 train, Miss.  Good luck with your real schedule.”

She smiled with bright green eyes in tacit praise to Maurice and hustled barefoot through the mobs of business suits to just make it into her seat.   Looking toward the tracks, he saw her wave anxiously from the window.

Every day that summer he saw her sprint by.  Though she was always late, she was on better schedule than any of the trains.  She had long hair and never wore anything that didn’t have flowers on it.  She sometimes wore headphones and hummed, off-key, with whatever she was listening to.  He would smile and return to his pocket words.

Maurice awoke early one morning.  He looked around his bedroom and the window was giant and tiny and misplaced.  His walls could no longer contain his miniature furniture or his enormous body.  Something was wrong and he could feel it.  His left hand was useless, and he almost laughed until he realized he didn’t understand what “funny” meant anymore.  Pain careened, faster than any train he had seen, through his left cheek, his skull, his shoulder blade, his back.  He commanded himself to hear whatever he could, which happened to be the horrendous cacophonies of metal screeching down the tracks outside.  Never had it sounded uglier.

He reached for his watch and batted it toward his eyes, gray, glossy, pupils widening and contracting; the view from a train hurtling in out of black tunnel openings.  What he saw was a line bent once and hooked at the bottom: 5. He fell out of bed onto the old carpet.  Another moan of the train, ticking and shooting past outside.  He knew there was a schedule and he knew time had elapsed.  The lilac glow of the fish tank was fusing with the orange light of rising sun.  Maurice scrambled for comfort.  He desperately tried to recite his pocket words.  Ace. Eve. Era. Lop. Ore. Tea. Sin. Woo. But the list of words he meant came out as only one, the collective mumble of a tongue now too large for its mouth.

He sat and waited there on the floor, surrendering.  It had taken mere seconds (or something like seconds) for him to forget everything he knew about the time.  He knew nothing about where he was, why he was.  But he knew he had somewhere to be, someone to see.  He thought of her.  Have I seen her today? Do I even known her name?  Will she help me? He saw himself lifting a shaking right hand with a questionable number of fingers.

Another train.  Another and another.  They just got louder as the sanguinary lake in Maurice’s head was filling up.  She’ll miss it.  I’ll miss it.  No time. He saw crossword boxes all over his walls and his skin.  They were dark and small.  In his last jolt of consciousness, he jammed his right hand into the pocket of his bathrobe.

Ana (3 letters) scurried into the courtyard and glanced halfway up the cracking apartment wall.  She paused, yanked out her headphones, and parted her lips to ask—he wasn’t there.  She scanned back down the building, peeling and yellow, and let her head continue down in noiseless lament.  She dropped her shoes, one at a time, on the ground.  Without wiping the grass from the bottoms of her feet, she slipped them into high heels that suddenly seemed too formal.  Ana replaced one headphone and turned to watch her 8:30 train disappear.  She sighed and felt herself move in an unfamiliar amble towards the station.  Fifty cents bought her a newspaper.  Slumped on a bench at the platform, Ana peeled open the delicate gray paper and turned to her favorite section.  First across, then down, until the 9:00 pulled in and released its breath.


—written by Hilary Dorton


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