My father’s heirloom watch hasn’t lost a second in almost fifty years. He is right to swear by it. Unfortunately, he isn’t so right to trust the watch’s previous owner. You see, it has also been five minutes early for almost fifty years. In his mind, this makes every other timepiece the world over five minutes late. I once tested him on the subject.
“What gives the English the right to decide the world’s time?”
“I don’t understand.”
“They build a giant clock they’re all very proud of, and rather than adjust it when they find it’s wrong, they go and take an empire. Now the entire world runs on their time. Typical english arrogance.”
I knew not to argue when it came to the English, but couldn’t resist another timepiece inquiry.
“Last Thursday, the pope said he’d speak at 11:00 a.m. by my watch, he did. Is he a liar or unpunctual?”
“It’s not a sin to build up anticipation.”
This may not have been much of an issue, save for the fact that for the last thirty years, he has run the car battery factory in our home town; all the while, demanding every worker’s punctuality by his watch. before long, the town, most of whose citizens either work for or depend on the factory for their own clientele, had adjusted to the schedule. Coffee shops and markets were opening five minutes early to accommodate the workers and schools entered session early to allow for a smoother collective commute. And rather than adjusting their signage, it just became common knowledge that seven o’clock meant six fifty five.
I can’t imagine another place either breeding or otherwise collecting a person like my father. Think of it. One man’s stubbornness has caused people moving to Mensdorf in order to grow old together to have five minutes immediately added to the rest of their life just by crossing the city limits. Those born in the city who move out -which is to say those receiving high marks in school- will have five minutes unceremoniously stolen from them. Not much of a reward. As for me, the trade was well worth it.
“So, how long has it been for you two?”
“Wow, that’s an impressive span for a father and son.”
“Not terribly uncommon.”
“Even so, I’m proud to be here to see the reunion.”
“You’re the one that insisted that I do this.”
“Yeah, and I’ll grant you, it might be a trainwreck, but you know how important this could be for all of us.”
The cafe had emptied of its harried, yet well groomed lunchtime crowd, and was newly alive with the cacophony of local students and artists. I had deliberately timed my father’s arrival to coincide with theirs. This way, I would look almost saintly in comparison.
My girlfriend, or something along those lines, Meredith, sat across from me. She seemed even more nervous than I was, fidgeting with almost every physical object within an arm’s length. I had a sense that if she thought that she could run metaphysical objects through her fingers to take her mind off of what was to come, she’d have reached for the nearest glance or quarrel.
“So, why are we only staying in Berlin for two days? You know how long I’ve wanted to explore this place.”
“Oh, you know that we only convinced him to meet us here last week, and had to book the train early. We were coming anyway; and if we couldn’t get him out here, we couldn’t justify the lodging for another day.”
“I know, but we can adjust the trip. I just wish you’d take the fact that all of this is new to me into account.”
“New to you? I’ve been to this city exactly once, when I was ten with my mother. She guided me by the collar to some cathedral to pray, and then straight back out.”
“Oh, which cathedral? I’d love to see it.”
“I chose not to remember at the time, and have never regretted it.”
“Can we ask your dad?”
“He doesn’t know we went. My mother had found me with a girl somewhere in the wheat fields outside of town. I don’t know if her mind was somewhere sexual, or if she found our truancy hauntingly embarrassing; but she couldn’t bear to have me confess to our local priest. He was a talkative fellow. So, she went to a place where she knew every priest was high-ranking enough to never step foot in our town. I wonder how Julia’s family kept quiet.”
Meredith’s unprecedented interest in my childhood was disconcerting, but I knew the worst was yet to come.
A tap came to my shoulder and I was greeted in my native German.
“Hi, how have things been?”
“Same as ever.”
“Are you happy?”
“Work needs to be done, and I am doing it. What work are you doing?”
“I’m tending bar.”
“Is that something you studied in Denmark?”
“I don’t know if you’d call it studying, but I’ve become quite practiced.”
“Who is this?”
Meredith, leaning almost halfway across the table with her ears perked, had finally been able to comprehend a sentence and almost gleefully interjected.
“Hello. I’m Ambrose. Pleased to meet you.”
“What is your relation to my son?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. My German is no good.”
My father -whose first name I had only heard on three occasions in my life- mimed the question admirably.
“Uh. Girlfriend?” Her discomfort with the response skewed the answer closer to “fiancee” than “friend.”
“I’m going to assume you were behind our meeting. My son is as stubborn as I am.”
Meredith glanced at me.
“I caught ‘going’ and ‘son.’”
“He knows this was your idea because I’m too stubborn to have done it.”
My father looked at me. “What did you say?”
“I was telling her what you said.”
“Oh. She seems nice.”
I was incredulous. I’d never seen him be personable before. He continued:
“You just said she seems nice.”
“Gentlemen, I can understand some of what you’re saying.”
“What did she say?”
“But that was in German.”
“That was German?”
The two of us laughed together. This was also new. Meredith joined in but wasn’t sure what the joke was.
The next thirty minutes went by surprisingly quickly. Meredith shared her ambitions, Ambrose -still strange to say, or even think- listened and encouraged them; after some translating on my part. I was able to understand the man outside of his stern Mensdorfer persona. At least a little more than I knew during any of my twenty eight years. As the afternoon came to a close, he stood up and said:
“I would like to stay, but I have to catch the train back home at 7:05.”
“What do you mean?”
“You two should come visit sometime. We have made significant improvements to the factory. You should see our new west side loading bay. It is truly a wonder of the modern age.”
With that, my father shook my hand, kissed my romantic something or other on the cheek and strolled out of the cafe. It was surreal. He felt human. After a moment passed silently, all I could really think to say was:
“So, uh, I guess she’ll have a grandfather, after all.”