Dad bought me my first watch when I was nine. He brought it back from a business trip to Switzerland, saying no one in the world made better timepieces than the Swiss. The watch had a white leather band he fastened around my slim wrist. The clock face had two spirals in the middle—one blue, one pink—that moved in opposite directions with each passing second, like a swirled lollipop. I lived with Mum during the week and went to Dad’s each Saturday night, staying at his condo perched high on a hill in an area of Malibu called Point Dume. Inevitably, Dad would ask about the watch, and I’d shrug, realising I’d forgotten to wear it again. When you’re a kid, time is irrelevant.
A year later, Dad bought a Howard Miller limited-edition grandfather clock to celebrate the opening of his financial planning firm. He placed the clock in the far corner of the living room next to a double-wide window that framed the twisting coastline of the Pacific Ocean. The clock face was matte gold, with threads of silver woven throughout. At the top were two spheres representing the Earth’s Western and Eastern Hemispheres, and every night a gold-plated moon inched its way across an indigo starlit sky. A mirror ran along the back of the book-matched base, reflecting three weights dangling on cables and a polished pendulum that swayed back and forth collecting seconds—tick, tick, tick. Twenty-four times a day, the clock played the tune of 'Westminster' and chimed once for each hour.
On Sunday mornings, as I sat at the dining table working through a stack of chocolate-chip pancakes, I watched Dad unlock the glass door of the grandfather clock and crank each of the three weights, pulleying them back to the top position. Then, with every ticking second thereafter, day after day, the weights would slowly descend until they nearly grazed the bottom of the case. The following Sunday I’d watch Dad start the process over again. Another week ends, another begins.
I wondered what would happen if he didn’t wind the clock. Would the weights hit the bottom of the frame? Would the chains slacken and coil across the floor? Would the clock stop ticking?
One Saturday night, I was lying awake in my downstairs bedroom, sure of the ghosts and gremlins lurking in every shadowy corner. I didn’t dare look anywhere but straight up at the popcorn ceiling until its bumpy surface began to morph into sinister faces. I needed Dad. I tiptoed across the room, opened my bedroom door, padded halfway up the stairs, and turned to peer up into the living room. Dad was on the couch leaning over a woman who’d arrived after we’d eaten dinner. He was kissing her, urgent and aggressive, like he was sprinting against a timekeeper. I’d never seen Dad kiss someone like that, not even Mum when they were married. I held my breath, crouched down, and crawled back to my bedroom.
At midnight I listened to the grandfather clock clang for an eternity. I squeezed my eyes shut and blocked my ears with my hands. I couldn’t take the batteries out or unplug it—in Dad’s house, time was his and no one else’s. At one minute past twelve I sighed with relief, knowing the small hours would be quieter.
The next morning I crept up the stairs expecting to find the woman there, but she was gone. Instead, I found Dad in his bedroom, standing by his dresser in a tan wool-blend suit, getting ready for church. I watched him slip a gold Rolex onto his left wrist, close the clasp with a tiny snap, and shake it a couple times to ensure it was wound.
Later, when we were sitting in the Sunday service and I was bored, I grabbed his left arm and shook it with all my might.
‘What are you doing?’ he hissed, his expression puzzled, veering towards cross.
‘I’m helping you wind your watch!’ I whispered.
‘Well, stop! It’s already wound,’ he said, yanking his wrist from my grasp.
The grandfather clock proved itself resilient amidst Dad’s increasingly chaotic life. It outlasted two divorces from stepmums who would have rather had Dad’s cash than his dumb clock. It even survived unscathed the night Dad left a bag of popcorn over an open flame and passed out drunk in his bedroom while the kitchen roared with fire.
When I was nineteen Dad sold his Malibu condo, closed his business, and moved to Hawai’i for what he called a ‘fresh start.’ I didn’t quite understand how he could give up a career he’d worked so hard to build, but he seemed determined to make selling timeshares his new profession. Before he left California, he asked family members to hold on to some of his things. It seemed a bit odd, but I figured shipping all his stuff to the middle of the Pacific Ocean was too onerous.
My grandmother got the bulk of Dad’s stuff: the painting his third wife swore was haunted, the Lladró figurines of glossy children frozen in laughter. And there were boxes and boxes of books Dad had collected during his PhD years studying theology. Books on spirituality, positive thinking, and New Age science that had once fuelled dreams of joining the church, but upon my birth, were used instead to manifest a successful financial career.
Grandma also got his grandfather clock. It sat against the entryway hall of her double-wide trailer in a desert town off the 15 Freeway between LA and Vegas, where the summers were so hot it made my eyes ache.
Dad’s ‘fresh start’ didn’t last. Within a year, he returned to Los Angeles, and everything began to make sense. Dad hadn’t been in Hawai’i starting over; he’d been hiding out. His stuff didn’t go to family members due to transport logistics, but because the California state authorities were seizing his possessions. Turns out Dad was a criminal. I learned from a newspaper article that he’d committed so many counts of insurance fraud there was a class-action lawsuit against him. It wasn’t slap-on-the-wrist, pay-a-fine sort of trouble; it was state prison for six years and a million dollars restitution to his victims. Dad was released after three years on good behaviour and went to live with Grandma in her trailer for what he swore would only be a year, but stretched into twelve.
When I’d visit family for the holidays, Dad would guilt-trip me into spending exactly as much time with him as I did with Mum. It seemed even as an adult, I was navigating 50–50 custody with my parents. I’d sleep in the spare bedroom at the back of Grandma’s place listening to feral cats claw one another under the floorboards. As the moon rose and crawled along the steel-black sky, I listened to the pendulum of the grandfather clock outside my bedroom swinging back and forth—tick, tick, tick. It made me feel small.
When Grandma died, Dad moved a block away into a one-room trailer so cramped, it barely fit a twin bed. I don’t know where the grandfather clock went. I doubt anyone in the family has it, given no one speaks to Dad anymore. I wonder if he sold it, and if so, how much money he got for it. I can’t ask him, since he agreed with my lawyers to never contact me again after I discovered he’d involved me in a decade-long scheme of fraud, theft, and forgery. Thankfully, he has honoured that arrangement thus far.
Mum once gave me a watch for my birthday. I’d spent the year prior living in three different countries and was about to leave for Japan. The watch face was silver and rectangular, with two clock dials laid side by side. The time on the left was set to Tokyo, while the right side was set to Arizona, where Mum had recently moved. The watch was battery-powered so didn’t require manual winding. The design was simple and understated—it hardly attracted attention. But most of all, it was blissfully silent.
I wore it every single day.
Photograph by Ebony Lamb