On Time

Every evening about this time, a man with a mean pout and a gold cross at his open shirtfront drives a BMW along the street in front of where I’m living. From various houses emerge my neighbors, anxious for fat grams in 20 bags. Meanwhile, women who want to be called girls materialize in immaterial costume, hands on hips, waiting for their rides to even less desirable neighborhoods. A little later, there will be the nightly hikes to the hooch house by scarecrows you never see in daytime. Daytime is safe here in Long Beach, CA. After one or two forays, however, I’ve decided that nighttime is not.

Where’s Rosie? She’s supposed to be back in the house by now. This is the third night in a row that I’ve had to go out looking for her.

I find her sitting on the front lawn of a house three doors down playing Monopoly with a new friend. Four days Rosie’s been with me this summer, long enough for her to become fast friends with another 8 year old.

By this time, the light is so low I don’t see how either girl can tell where all those little jalopies and thimbles and wheelbarrows are on the board they’re holding on their laps.  “Rosie,” I say, trying not to sound too frustrated, “it’s dark. Why are you still outside?”

“Oh,” says my granddaughter, hopping up and spilling Monopoly pieces on the grass, “it’s dark!” Rosie is apparently oblivious to every evening’s transition from sunlight to sin. What to do?

I give the problem some thought after we get through with spaghetti, showers and a bedtime story. If Rosie doesn’t notice nighttime, how about just time? Luckily, I have an alarm clock somewhere, one of those old ones you wind up and set manually. It belonged to my great-grandmother, Nan, and it ticked so loudly that it drove me crazy when I slept in the same room with her as a small child. Why I kept it, I don’t know. Maybe because I always like to be prepared for the failure of things like electricity. Anyway, that night, I find the clock among a small assortment of things once owned by my elders: intricate embroidery called “tatting” painstakingly crafted by my Aunt Nora and originally sewed onto the edges of pillowcases, a seven-inch strand from my grandfather’s gold watch chain—I never saw the watch—an antique screwdriver that felt good in my hand when my father gave it to me so long ago, and a blue apron I think somebody gave my mother but which she never wore because she hated aprons. I don’t like them, either.

The next night I send Rosie out with the clock ticking “loud-loud,” as she puts it, and set for 6:35 p.m.  Not more than seven minutes later, she’s home waving the clock in the air. “It’s dark out there,” she announces, and grins.

Two more days she comes in on time, one eye on the clock, and then decides she can tell when it gets dark without all that ticking.

And she could. Every night from then on during that summer visit, my granddaughter came in on time and safe.