Frozen in Time

            Sam Banks is always on the move. Whenever a girl tries to get to know him, usually in a dive somewhere after a few too many drinks, he will stare straight into her woozy eyes and tell her he has got “a restless heart.” He can speak those words with a kind of dangerous charm. The whiskey smooth voice and the devil blue eyes almost always win them over. He does not keep count, at least not when it comes to the party girls he meets on the road, but he figures he is batting over 500. 

            One time, a busty brunette in Toledo saw through his boyish dimples. Though she could barely sit upright on her stool, she looked him straight in his eyes and said with a knowing grin: “Honeybuns, you’re restless, but it’s got nothin’ to do with your heart.” Perhaps for the first time in his life Sam Banks was speechless, though he still managed to turn the tables on her and scored a jackpot later that night. 

            Like generations of handsome grifters and gigolos before him, Sam is able to sniff out the action, while most working stiffs are thinking about how to rub a couple of pennies together at the bar after work. He is right there with a face and a line just as the booty call or the money transaction is about to take place. Most often, he gets something more than he deserves when it all goes down; and, more importantly, he is gone before the swindled figures out he has been swindled.  

            He carries his success with him, usually as crisp hundred dollar bills deep in his pockets or as stolen jewelry inside his jacket. There is no place safer to keep his booty. A crook with a bank account or a car is a fool. They are registered and easily traceable. Sam moves fast, but it is always on foot or in an empty boxcar, and when he sleeps it is usually in a rented room somewhere with a landlord who never asks to see a credit report. Living so close to the edge, Sam never really knows when he may need something quick to bribe himself out of a situation. He can be quick with his lines, but he is even quicker when the cash and the jewels are within immediate reach. More than anything that is what it means for Sam to be always on the move. 

            As much as he lives off the grid, Sam is not all that careful when it comes to his appearance. He dresses chic and walks with a swagger. Whenever he wanders into a new town, he sniffs out the most happening juke joint or watering hole. The place in town is where Sam is going to find his next opportunity, maybe that night, maybe months later. Regardless, something big will happen there, and that means he needs to become as fast as possible the cock of the walk among the regulars. He may be hundreds of miles from Beverly Hills or New York City, but the principle is the same: The man with the attitude gets the girls and walks away with the money.

            Sam strolled into Everlasting, North Dakota, about a week ago. He had been travelling on foot through cornfields for weeks. He was anxious to find a bed and a barstool; even if the town was not much more urbane than those quiet, homespun farmhouses he had been robbing lately. 

            That afternoon, he met Clara Neighbor, a white haired widow with a flower garden and an old beagle named Jehovah. The kind woman with the cherubic face and the “Jesus Loves You” apron welcomed him without hesitation. He asked if she might have a room for rent, and she gave him the quarters above the barn in which her top granger had lived for many years. He had passed on to the Great Cornfield above the clouds shortly before her husband had died, and the quarters have been vacant since then. 

            Within a few days of moving in Sam had ingratiated himself into Clara’s old farmhouse. Ostensibly doing chores for her around the house, he scouted the rooms for whatever he could steal. There was not much of value. He finally found a cookie jar with a few hundred dollars he slipped into his pocket, and with that prize he put in his first appearance that night in the only bar in town. 

            Within a minute of saddling up to the bar Sam was the Big Cock in the Happy Rooster Tavern. He stood out as the only drinker not wearing a pair of overalls and a John Deere cap. The old timers noticed him, of course, but like all good folks around there they minded their own business. The tavern was never more than half full, and the jukebox had not worked since about the time Ed Sullivan introduced Elvis to the screaming kids in his studio audience. It was dead every night for a week, but it was the only game in town. Therefore, Sam continued to show up all that time with a big wad of Clara’s money in his pocket. He would stick it out until something happened.

            Last night something happened in the form of a pretty bleach blond wearing high heels, super tight, knee ripped jeans, and a loose hanging, ‘fuck me’ blouse. She clutched a gold sequined Dolce & Gabbana purse close to her hip while taking a seat at the bar not far from the Big Cock in the corner. 

            Notwithstanding the ‘No Smoking’ sign above the bar, the bleach blond took out a cigarette. Sam slid over to the stool beside hers; and lit one of the matches he had stolen from Clara’s kitchen, before she could look around for her lighter in her purse. She winked at the dapper stranger while taking a drag on her smoke, and he blew out the fire like blowing a kiss. Each one was as contrived as the other. It was surely a match made in heaven, if either one of them actually believed in an eternal life apart from whatever was going down at the moment. 

            She called herself Deborah Bling. Sam never once believed that was her real name. She said she was in town visiting family she had not seen since she left for an acting gig in Los Angeles. Sam sensed that was closer to the truth, but he would have bet his wad of Clara’s money that the acting was the type done on YouPorn. She said that she has “high standards” when it comes to men. From the looks of the gold rings on her fingers, Sam believed that she weighed the gift more than the man in making her assessment. With that statement Sam realized that Deborah was more than just a fine piece of ass. She was a kindred spirit. Besides wanting to score with her above the barn later that night, Sam decided that he actually kind of liked her. 

            Sam brought Deborah back to his place sometime after the last bell, and she rode him until the break of dawn. He could not remember the last time he had been so excited to be with a woman. Sure, he loves sex like the next guy, and even more he loves adding another number to his internal scorecard. But the bleach blond with the heart tattoo on her ass really rocked his world on his twin bed overlooking the haystacks. The way she looked down at him whenever she had an orgasm (and she had more orgasms than a sex starved housewife with a black vibrator and a pair of Eveready batteries) was more than dangerous. It was sinister, hot times in the sack, but also cold and devious. 

            If he had been more careful, Sam would have been put off by that dark look. He would have banged her tight ass silly, and then skipped town the next day before she came back for more. He knew enough to live off the grid, but had never met any woman he could not ultimately handle. 

            So tonight he invited Deborah back to his place. She arrived sometime after midnight. Instead of the ripped jeans she wore a pleated miniskirt with no panties. 

            The rest of her outfit was the same, but it did not really matter. Her scanty “fuck me” outfit was on the floor within minutes, and she rode him hardcore until the witching hour.   

            “Do you know what I’d really love?” Deborah asks Sam with a breathy, tired voice that calls to mind Marilyn Monroe after she has taken a Valium. 

            Deborah is lying on Sam’s left side. She has her arms wrapped around him, and her right cheek is nestled on his bare chest. 

            Sam is staring at the red barn rafters directly above him. He has his hands behind his head. There is a woozy grin on his boyish face, even though he has not had anything to drink in a while. 

            “What’s that, honey?” Sam asks. 

            Deborah slides her left hand beneath the blanket and down his skinny torso. She grabs his cock, which is flaccid and still gooey with ejaculant. She caresses it like she is kneading bread dough. 

Sam feels less aroused than controlled. His first instinct is to pull her off his cock, but he does not do that. He does not want her to think that anything she does could possibly make him uneasy let alone afraid. A part of him is also fascinated by her little game. He wants to see how far she will go with it, while he is confident he can remain on top of the situation when push comes to shove. After all, the thrill of opportunity is that sometimes it is dangerous, maybe even deadly, and how can he score if he is too afraid to play the game? 

“A stopwatch,” Deborah says. 

“A stopwatch?” Sam asks.

“Oh, yeah,” Deborah says, while she looks up at Sam’s smooth chin. “But not just any old one.”

“Oh,” Sam says. 

Deborah starts to rub Sam’s cock in a way that is much more arousing. Sam is lucky to be young. His manhood starts to show new life again within seconds. 

“Do you know about Draeger’s Collectibles in town?” 

Sam scouted the local pawnshop as soon as he had found the tavern. A grifter worth his reputation always knows where he can get cash quick in a dicey situation. 

Sam had not been all that impressed, though. He has seen better pawnshops in inner city black neighborhoods. Draeger’s offered the kind of hokey knickknacks countrified white folks have as collateral or want to purchase. He did not stay long, but he saw enough painted glass cows, floral quilts, and hunting rifles to last for one of his nine lives.  

“Sure, babe,” Sam says.

Deborah rubs Sam’s cock until it is erect. Sam closes his eyes expecting her to mount him. Instead, she caresses him more gently. She is keeping him erect without also letting him come. 

“There’s an antique Racine stopwatch under the counter,” Deborah explains. “Old Man Draeger has kept it down there for years. My grandmother once owned it.” 

“I didn’t know you were so sentimental,” Sam says with a chuckle. 

“I’m not,” Deborah continues. “But my grandmother told me I’d be able to do anything I wanted if I got a hold of that watch.”

“Anything, huh?” Sam says with another chuckle. 

Deborah stops caressing Sam. She holds his stiff cock hard, and leans on her left elbow so as to be able to look down at his face. 

“Wouldn’t you like to do anything with me?” Deborah asks in her sultry babe voice, while staring longingly into Sam’s baby blues. 

Sam is irritated. He is fine with a bitch playing games, but not when she holds him back from coming. He is careful not to show his displeasure, though. 

“Why don’t you just buy it? It can’t cost that much,” Sam remarks. 

“I’ve tried. He won’t sell it. He doesn’t even admit he has it,” Deborah replies.

“Well, then, how do you know….” Sam starts to ask. 

“Please!” Deborah interrupts Sam with an urgency that irritates him just then even more than the sexual restraint. 

Realizing she may have broken her spell, Deborah relaxes her face, and turns on her sultry voice again. She does not release her grip, though. 

“Can’t you check for me?” Deborah pouts. “I’d be so grateful. I’d do anything.”

“Anything,” Sam says with his sexy smooth voice. 

Deborah smiles, and continues rubbing him hard. Sam leans back and enjoys.

*   *   *

            Sam scouts Draeger’s Collectibles again the following day. He observes a back door that opens into a narrow alleyway. A skinny, freckled, farm boy reject steps out the back door every hour to smoke a cigarette. He leans against an old dumpster and stares blankly at the back wall of Walt’s General Store, until he flicks his dead smoke away. He steps back inside with the same indifference. Not once does he even bother to close the back door all the way. 

            Sam wonders why he is doing this. He has never before gone out on a limb for a girl, especially when he has scored multiple times with her already. What else does Deborah Bling have to offer him? She promised she would do “anything” for him, but she has been so easy in the sack thus far he figures he could get her to do “anything” without having to steal the stopwatch for her anyway. Moreover, as much as he may love the old pump and grind, and has sweet-talked his way into many women’s beds, he has never done a heist for a screw. He lives for danger, but even then the ultimate reward has to be commensurate to the risk to be worthwhile. 

            So he is not doing this for the sex, or at least that is what he says to himself as he watches the slacker smoker step back into the pawnshop. It must be all about the stopwatch itself. Sam doubts it will have much value in the marketplace. Otherwise, assuming Old Man Draeger actually keeps it under his counter, the pawnbroker with the cigar stained, yellowed, buck teeth would have sold it a long time ago to pay for some much needed dental work. Probably, the geezer with the white work shirt and the high bottom trousers keeps it around for sentimental reasons. If that is the case, then he is not much of a pawnbroker. Sam senses that most everyone in this remote farm town is half assed anyway, so that may be closer to the truth. 

            Maybe, sentiment explains why Sam is setting out to steal the stopwatch. He may be a callous grifter, but he is not entirely coldhearted. Indeed, going back to his childhood, he has a soft spot in his heart for a true blue treasure hunt. He still has in his jacket pocket the first baseball card he swindled from a four-eyes during school lunch. The nerd used to bring his baseball card album with him to school every day. It was obviously his attempt at making friends. Sam had thought for weeks on how he could swindle one out from his album without leaving a trace. The actual crime turned out to be much less elaborate than he had devised in his head, but the hunt leading up to that moment had given him an adrenaline rush he never forgot. Ever since he walked into this town, Sam has yet to find anything worth hunting. He did not even need to hunt for Deborah. She practically fell onto his lap. The stopwatch steal will kick some life back into his blood, even if the farm boy is making it much too easy by keeping the back door open all the time. 

            It is dark when Old Man Draeger hobbles out the front door, and drives away in his 1950 Ford F1 pickup truck. The farm boy turns the window sign from “Howdy Neighbor” to “Gone Fishin’ for Trout,” and then a few minutes later he leaves out the back door. He lights up another cigarette while stepping outside. He does not bother to close the back door behind him. 

            Sam waits another ten minutes, and then sneaks into the pawnshop through the back door. It is very dark inside, and he waits a minute for his eyes to adjust. He again has second thoughts about the heist, but decides to press forward regardless. 

            He looks up for any blinking lights that might indicate a video camera. There is nothing, and he does not recall seeing anything when he had been in here before. Even though this is a pawnshop, he doubts the old man has installed anything more sophisticated that might be watching him at the moment. The candy jar may as well be opened and placed on his lap. 

            Sam steps behind the glass display counter. It is too dark to observe what is on display, but he recalls from the last time that it is a set of glass farm animals. The animals each have the same expressive Betty Boop eyes. There is a handwritten sign taped to the countertop that reads: “Support the FFA. Collect them all.” Presumably, Old Man Draeger is going to give part of the sale proceeds to the Future Farmers of America. Charity is a great marketing tool especially among countrified church folk. 

            Sam does not care about charity, unless he has figured out a way to be one of the guys with his hand out. He also does not imagine there is much resale value for a set of Betty Boop farm animals outside of this hodunk town, and the figurines would be way too hot to try to sell them to a local collector. This is one reason why he had decided the last time that the pawnshop is a dead end. There is another reason that gnawed at the back of his mind then but is now becoming clearer. He recalls that he had muttered “good riddance” like he had just walked away from a place faded and cracked by doom. He had tried to drink away that feeling at the tavern, and until he had agreed to this little treasure hunt he had mostly succeeded. 

            Now, as Sam checks under the glass display, he realizes why Old Man Draeger and his farm boy are so lax with security. The pawnshop is protected not by cameras and alarms but by a dark omen. Crooks simply do not want to be here, or at least not for very long, and that keeps the products on the shelves and inside the glass display until the codger shopkeeper hobbles back the next morning. The real mark of a little, homespun storefront on a Main Street to Nowhere is not what it is but what it keeps away: the small time crooks, the left coast weirdoes with their “new ideas,” and even time itself. These small places persevere precisely because they are not on the move. Sam may live his life on an open road, but he has never felt more like an outcast than when he has been in this pawnshop. 

            Once more, Sam asks himself what he is doing here. Yes, there is the allure of a treasure hunt, but no job has ever been this creepy. It is like a cold serpent coiling down his spine. He even feels sweat breaking out on his forehead, and the debonair grifter with the cocky grin never sweats. 

            Perhaps, the fact that he is so nervous now is why he remains. Sam can slink from one opportunity to the next because he can control his reactions, when all the other schmucks out there are floundering. He is cool. He grins at the hot babe beside him not because he is happy, but because it is the exact right time to do so. Emotions exist for no reason than to be checked and mastered, and that is especially true for a crook when he is on the job. 

            Therefore, as much as Sam eyes the open back door, and thinks that it would be a good idea to spend his time instead at the tavern tonight, he continues to search for a locked drawer beneath the glass display. He finds it finally, and he uses a Swiss Army knife to snap open the lock. 

            The drawer is full of knickknacks one normally finds in a busy office: Post-It notes, paperclips, rubber bands, pens. There is also a wad of cash that Sam pockets.

            Apart from the cash there seems to be no reason to keep the drawer locked, and he is about to close it when he feels something different beneath the clutter at the back. Sure enough, it is an antique, silver, Racine stopwatch. It is small and thin enough that he can slip it into the same pocket as the cash. It feels like a trinket that a child might have won in a Cracker Jack box a hundred years ago. It hardly seems worth the risk, and yet Sam feels relieved to have found it and to be able now to get the heck out of this creepy place. 

            Sam closes the drawer, and restores the lock. He is about to slink out from behind the counter when he hears an old truck engine stop abruptly in front of the storefront. He pokes his head above the counter, and observes a vintage lamppost outside beam ghostly light onto a red Ford F1 pickup truck. The truck continues to idle, while Old Man Draeger steps down from behind the wheel with his door key in hand. The storekeeper looks perturbed, though that may be his normal expression. 

            Sam lowers his head just as Old Man Draeger opens the door and switches on the light. He looks around to see if there is anything within arm’s reach that could be used as a weapon. There is nothing, and so he squats even lower and clenches both fists. He will pounce up and punch the old man’s lights out, if he is about to be found. 

            Old Man Draeger passes the counter, and enters into a back office which Sam had not seen prior. Sam pokes his head above the counter, and watches as the angry storekeeper switches on the office light, walks around his desk, and opens up a safe on the back wall. Although he is watching as intently as possible, Sam cannot make out the combination. Nor is he able to see what is inside the safe.

            Old Man Draeger removes a .44 Magnum revolver from the safe. He locks up the safe, and when he leaves his office he does not switch off the light. He is heading out toward his truck with his revolver in his pocket, but presumably he will go back into his office in a moment. 

            Sam watches as a big man in a ten-gallon hat walks up to the pickup truck on the curb. The man looks like he could ride a moose all day, and then eat it for dinner. Old Man Draeger strikes up a conversation with the giant cowboy. They appear to be close friends, and at one point the giant breaks into a boisterous, good ol’ boy laugh.

            Is that a Sheriff’s badge on the big man’s shirt? Sam does not want to find out.

            While the two friends continue to talk outside, Sam sneaks out the back door. He closes the door behind him, and he strolls down the dark alleyway with his hands in his pants pockets. He tucks down his chin, and he leaves as inconspicuously as he can.  He remains outwardly cool, which is a testament to his skill in the dark arts of a thief, but his heart pounds hard against his chest. He will not be able to relax until he takes a shot of whiskey. 

*   *   *

            Sam sits on the edge of his bed. It is sometime after midnight, and he is drunk from a few too many whiskey shots. He expects Deborah to arrive at the barn at any moment. He is not sure he can do much, but that should be okay. Deborah does most of the lovemaking anyway. 

            Sam removes the wad of cash from his pants pocket. He kicks out the wooden box beneath his bed, bends forward with some difficulty, opens the box, and throws in the cash. With the money he stole already from Clara Neighbor, he could skip out of town tonight and make it out to the west coast in about a week. The action is a lot bigger and faster the closer you get to the ocean. It must be something in the air out there. There are a couple of whores he knows in North Beach he could pimp. He has left more than his heart in San Francisco, so perhaps he should leave now and try to get some of that back. 

            Instead, he removes the stopwatch from his pocket, and stares at it. There is nothing particularly remarkable about it, so far as he can tell, and he cannot fathom why Deborah is so interested in getting her hands on it. He should just give it to her when she arrives, enjoy groovy sex with her, and then leave before dawn. He misses already the fast world where confidence men and whores rule the roost, although he cannot deny that Deborah has been a nice diversion while holed up in this hicksville.

            But he is not going to do that. While staring at the stopwatch, he decides he is not going to hand it over to her. He cannot put his finger on it, but no matter that the stopwatch seems unremarkable it is important. It is meant for him. Like the baseball card he swindled from that nerd in grade school, he is supposed to hold onto this for the rest of his life. Perhaps, it is a lucky charm. Every grifter has one. Usually, it is the first nickel he stole, or an illicit photograph of a former lover. Is there a law that says the lucky charm cannot be a stopwatch picked up from a pawnshop? The man on the move learns early on the importance of luck in plying his trade. He can never master his luck, but he can caress it; maybe, nudge it in his direction more often than not. In the end, time is a key factor with luck, so why not think of a watch as a lucky charm?

            Sam hears Deborah stepping into the barn below him. He puts the stopwatch into the wooden box, closes the lid, and kicks the box under his bed. When Deborah asks him about it, he will lie to her. He is sure his baby blues will not give him away, though Deborah is pretty observant for a chick. The grifter who cannot sell a woman a beachfront home in Arizona deserves that jail cell that will be his home at the end. 

*   *   *

            Deborah inquires about the stopwatch only once that night. She comes while riding his cock, and then leans forward until her face is inches above Sam’s. Looking deeply into his beautiful eyes, she asks him in her sultry sexpot voice, “Okay, big boy, did you get it for me?”

            Sam just widens his grin. His eyes are dreamy blue, but he is careful then not to look away. Even the slightest indication of discomfort or hesitation will signal the lie he is about to say. 

            “Come on, tell me,” Deborah says with a playful grin. 

            “Soon, babe,” Sam responds. 

            Deborah looks into his eyes a moment longer. If she does not believe him, she is careful not to suggest that. She rolls onto his side, and holds him tightly until he is ready to go for another round. 

            Deborah leaves just before dawn, and Sam falls asleep a few minutes later. He is exhausted, but his sleep is restless. For reasons he cannot explain, he is frightened and excited by the stopwatch beneath his bed. Rationally, he knows that it is a small, unremarkable timing device in a wooden box, but in his dream it feels to him like an invisible hand reaching through his pillow and caressing the back of his head. Every time those soft fingers move in and out of his cranium, he hears a “tick” and a “tock” as if time itself is giving him a massage. The dream is not really a nightmare, but it is unsettling because he senses a force at play that he cannot outwit with a streetwise comment or a perfectly timed wink. Whatever this is it is faster than him, and that is a reality he has never experienced, nor even acknowledged, in his years on the road. 

*   *   *

            It is noon, and Sam is sitting on a log outside the barn. The day is scorching hot, and he has a headache from all those whiskey shots the night before. He cannot remember the last time he had such a bad hangover. He is still a young man, but he may be getting too old for the drinking games he likes to pursue at dingy taverns on lonely nights. At the moment anyway he thinks there may be something worthwhile about shoving that devil drink aside for good. 

            Sam removes the stopwatch from his pants pocket. He stares at the face. His rational mind tells him that it is as unremarkable as before. It is a poor man’s silver trinket. His heart whispers that this little stopwatch is the most beautiful object he has ever seen. It is the face of a lover; a woman he will keep forever inside his pants pocket because unlike all the others she exists for no other reason than to serve him.

            The farmhouse screen door opens, and Sam looks up. He watches as the kind, old Clara Neighbor carries a bucket out to the garden. She is wearing what Sam sees as her uniform: a floral granny dress, a “Jesus Loves You” apron, and a pair of brown boots that always look like they have been polished the previous night. Jehovah, her old beagle, follows her dutifully. He stays on the porch, though, because the heat is a bit too much for his tired bones and worn paws. 

            Sam sees Clara’s butt in the air, as she bends down to pull up weeds. She does not come up for air that often. Sam could sneak into the farmhouse now and look for another stash of cash. Old ladies always have more than one hiding place where they keep rainy day funds. Either it is because they are so careful not to put all their eggs in one basket, or it is because they have forgotten where they put them the last time. 

            Sam does not move from the log, though. He is much too focused on his lover.

            An old vehicle rattles up the driveway. Sam looks up and sees that it is a Ford tow truck from the early fifties. It is dented everywhere and caked in hardened mud. All the windows are broken, and the geezer with the pipe behind the steering wheel is constantly waving away dirt and flies. What is it with the old farts and the antique cars in this town? Are they afraid that a Japanese rice burner from the 1980s may be too new for them? Nostalgia is one thing, but there seems to be a collective fetish for all things ancient and rusted. 

            The geezer with the pipe stops his truck by the garden. He spits phlegm out his driver side window, opens the door, and steps out. He leans on the open door for support. Clara walks over to him and smiles. She would greet a devil or a saint with the same kindness, and Sam almost feels a tinge of guilt at having stolen cash out of her cookie jar. He sets that aside. Guilt is a big ball and chain for a man on the move. 

            Sam notices a gust of wind blowing up dirt closer to him. It is an unpleasant, hot gust that feels like something from a furnace. It picks up tumbleweed and blows it around in every direction. 

            Sam looks down at the stopwatch. For no particular reason, he presses down on the button at the top. The red hand moves silently around the clock face. Like any stopwatch it is measuring the seconds passed. 

            The moment he presses down on the button the furnace wind stops, and the tumbleweed falls to the ground. Sam takes in a deep breath. The air is much hotter and staler than before. It feels like the air in a pressurized container that is not able to move anywhere. 

            Sam looks up from the stopwatch. The silence is deafening. He had heard the pleasant chatter between Clara and her friend just a moment ago. Now, that chatter is gone. The sensation is like having the most powerful headphones ever pressed to his ears and, even worse, not being able to take them off. 

            Sam looks at the farmhouse. Jehovah is lying still on the porch, but that is not much different than he always is. What piques Sam’s interest is the farmhouse itself. It seems strangely unreal to him, like a backdrop on a movie set held up from behind with slanted posts. Even stranger, a voice in the back of his head tells him that this is how the farmhouse is going to remain forevermore. It will never again deteriorate in the sun and the rain. Clara will never again need to slap on a coat of paint. It appears paradoxically flimsy and immovable.

            While still staring at the farmhouse, and wondering what the hell this means, Sam presses down again on the stopwatch button. The thin red hand counting away seconds stops. 

            Immediately, the furnace wind resumes, and the tumbleweed continues to be blown every which way. Interestingly, rather than be picked up from the ground, the tumbleweed is magically up in the air where it had fallen just like it had never fallen in the first place. Sam takes in another deep breath. The air feels and smells normal. He cups his ear. The invisible headphones have been removed, and he can hear Clara speaking clearly with the geezer. He looks again at the farmhouse. It appears normal to him, and Jehovah stretches out his front paws like nothing odd had just happened.

            Sam tries to tell himself that he must have downed more whiskey shots than he had thought, but that does not ring true to him. His hangover is bad, but until just now he had never been so disoriented. His heart beats fast and hard in his chest. He is frightened and excited, like when he first walked off with the stopwatch, and that means whatever happened broke his cool at least for a moment. 

            Sam looks back down at the stopwatch. His lover is nudging him to give her another try. Playful women are always hiding something, and Sam damn well knows better than to go along with them without first figuring out how to turn the tables. If he were the same Sam Banks who has skipped out from many bad circumstances on the road, he would slap the bitch and toss her aside right now. Let Jehovah someday find the stopwatch in the dust and bury it, while Sam is well on his way to California.

            Instead, Sam stands up with the stopwatch in hand, and walks in the general direction of the garden. Clara affectionately refers to the geezer with the smoky pipe as “Walt.” So that’s the old codger’s name, Sam thinks. Backwoods Americana names are usually one syllable: Walt, Hank, Bud, Burt. Hicks cannot pronounce longer ones.

            Sam presses down on the stopwatch button. Like before, the furnace wind all of a sudden stops. The air he breathes is hot and stale. The silence is deafening, like a pair of headphones clutched to his ears. The farmhouse is paper thin yet also forever immovable. 

            None of this impedes Sam from stepping forward, though. His nose and ears feel like they are trapped inside pressurized vacuums, but the rest of him feels fine. 

            What catches his attention is the scene right there in front of him. Clara and Walt are in suspended animation. Walt had moved his head, and had spit out more phlegm away from Clara. The phlegm fell straight down to the dust like that sticky tumbleweed had before. If everything repeats itself, then as Sam clicks down again on the stopwatch button the phlegm will appear magically in the air from where it had fallen and continue on its arc to a spot on the ground farther away. It will be as if none of this ever happened, except for Sam, that is. He will know what happened, like the magician who alone knows his sleight of hand. 

            Sam grins. The implications for a man on the move are obvious. How can he not swindle away what he wants at any time? He had had to plan for weeks how to snatch the baseball card away from that nerd in grammar school. If he had had this stopwatch then, he could have walked away with the whole damned album without even trying. True, this removes the thrill of the hunt, but who cares about that when Sam can steal or kidnap whatever without ever being caught on a camera doing so? 

            Sam stands within a few feet of Clara and Walt. He clicks down on the button.

            As expected, the phlegm appears in the air from where it had fallen. It flies on its ordained arc to a spot on the ground farther away. Clara is startled that Sam had snuck up on her without her noticing him. Walt turns his head back, and looks coldly as the young upstart in the flashy city clothes who is there all of a sudden. Sam grins like the Cheshire cat, while sliding the stopwatch back into his pocket. This happens all at once, and though Sam is careful to keep his grin on his face inwardly he is more than frightened by all that sensory overload hitting him instantly out from nothing.

            Clara introduces Sam to Walt, and Walt begrudgingly takes his hand. There is a bit of small talk, but Sam hardly notices. He is thinking already about the next heist with his new lover at his side. 

*   *   *

            Sam is leaning against the light pole across from Draeger’s Collectibles, and at any moment he anticipates that the light above him will switch on. It is dark already, and Sam imagines most of the country folk have headed inside to eat up biscuits and gravy and to watch old episodes of “Hee Haw.” Nothing happens around these parts after hours, except for the tavern, and even that is only half alive when Sam Banks is not there giving the place a little class. 

            This is the fifth night in a row he has been waiting for his opportunity. He had intended at first just to click on the stopwatch, stroll into the pawnshop, open up the safe, and remove whatever is in there. The time of day would not have mattered, for he would have been long gone before he set time forward again. 

            Then, it occurred to him that he never saw the safe combination, and without sound at his disposal then he would not have been able to hear those subtle clicks in the safe that tell him how to dial the lock. He could try to use a blowtorch, assuming he could find one in town, but would the flame come out when time stops? He thinks it will not based on what he has observed when he has experimented with his lover over the passed few days.

            Moreover, he does not want to stop time for too long. He has stopped it only for a few minutes at a time. Every time a whisper in the back of his mind has warned him that his lover may be uncontrollable if he gives her too much rope. Though time can caress, as he has felt on the back of his head every night since stealing the device away from Old Man Draeger, it has the strength to do a whole lot more if not kept in check. Time left unbound is a bitch he does not want to meet. 

            So the plan is to wait until he can steal whatever is in that safe as fast and as easy as possible. With the treasure in hand he will run several blocks away on foot, click off the stopwatch, and then hotwire a car to get out of town before the Sheriff arrives. He will ditch the car before dawn, and then hop onto a train headed for the coast. The hillbilly law enforcement will suspect the Dapper Don Juan staying out at Clara’s barn loft. It is not as if he has been all that inconspicuous walking around the town and hanging out at the tavern in his city clothes, but the local yokels will never be able to trace him out in San Francisco. 

            Normally, Old Man Draeger steps out of the pawnshop at about this time. He leaves in his Ford F1 pickup truck. Then, the skinny farm boy switches the front sign to “Gone Fishin’ for Trout,” and exits out the back door. 

            This time, the farm boy switches the front sign, before the old man has left. It is a notable change in their routine, and Sam pays more careful attention than usual.           

            The back office light is turned on. Sam can view it clearly enough through the storefront window, because everything else is so dark. 

            Sam runs across the street. He peers through the front door. He can view the old man walking around his desk and over to his safe. He cannot view the farm boy, so he presumes that the employee of the month has left already. 

            The lampposts switch on. Sam cowers, because he is now much more visible.

            A vehicle drives down Main Street. Sam sees the headlights out of the corner of his eyes. It is only a matter of seconds before the beams wash over him. He thinks of stepping away, but he does not. He has no idea when he may have this good of an opportunity, and he is anxious to get out of town before Deborah or someone else is able to find out about his lover. 

            Sam removes the stopwatch from his pocket. He hovers his right thumb over the button. The moment the old man opens the safe he will stop time and break into the pawnshop. All he needs is for that safe door to swing open before the headlights snatch him out from the darkness. 

            The old man is turning the safe lock. His arthritic fingers move so damn slow.

            Sam practically feels the headlights slapping against him. The vehicle stops at once. Tactical lights switch on, and Sam realizes that the vehicle belongs to someone in law enforcement. 

            “Step away from the door,” a gruff voice yells through a vehicle loudspeaker. 

            Sam continues to stare through the front door. The old man has yet to unlock the safe, and now with the hullabaloo outside he stops and looks back to see what is happening. 

            Sam hears the vehicle door open. He hears a big man in leather boots step out from behind the steering wheel. He thinks he also hears the distinct click and slide of a shotgun being reloaded. That last sound may be his imagination, but regardless his cool falls out the window. 

            Sam clicks on the stopwatch, while instinctively running away from the front door. He is too frantic to notice the air turn stale. Nor does he notice the pressurized silence clasp over his ears. With the sound everywhere else gone, his heartbeat is an enormous drum beating fast inside his head. 

            His reason tries to tell him that there is no reason to run now. Assuming that is the Sheriff or one of his deputies back there, he is in suspended animation, and so is the old man in the back office. Indeed, so far as Sam knows, the entire world is in a state of suspended animation at this moment. If only he will calm down….

            Sam stumbles off of the sidewalk. He falls forward, and lands very hard on his knees. He drops the stopwatch in the process. 

            He holds his knees in agony for a while. The throbbing pain does not subside. He will need to apply ice when he gets back to the farmhouse. Clara will be asleep at this time, so he will just sneak into her kitchen. 

            He picks up the stopwatch from the road, and he hobbles down to the end of the block. He sees Deborah there standing beneath a lamppost. She is facing toward Draeger’s Collectibles. The bitch had followed him. Apparently, she had suspected he had the stopwatch and had waited for him to get the treasure out of the safe. A small pistol strapped to her miniskirt tells Sam that Deborah had been willing to go to the mat to get that treasure from him. She had played him from the start. 

            Sam is pissed. No woman ever before has been able to turn the tables on him. He wants to push her to the ground out of spite, but he knows that she is as frozen in place as a mountain. He consoles himself with the idea that he will get his revenge in one way or another when this is done. 

            He hobbles down another block. He thinks he is far enough away now to turn time back on. He leans against the lamppost, and eyes the alleyway across the street. He will run down there and lose himself in the darkness. The Sheriff will believe that he has vanished into thin air. 

            Sam looks down at his stopwatch. The glass face is cracked, but the red hand continues to move clockwise from one second to the next. 

            Sam presses down on the button. Nothing happens. The red hand continues to move clockwise. Sam presses down on the button a second time, but again there is no change. The third time he tries the button does not even move. It is stuck, but the red hand keeps counting away the seconds like there is no end. He can hear his lover calling out to him with her devilish smile: “Tick Tock. Tick Tock. Tick Tock….”

*   *   *

            Sam stands before Clara’s screen door. His knees are screaming out in pain as much now as when he first injured them earlier. He is desperate for ice, but the door is proving to be as immovable as everything else. He beats on the screen with his fist as hard as he can, but that seems to make no impact at all. Interestingly, his fist does not hurt even after all that violence. He had hurt his knees before the stopwatch had hit the asphalt, and so that seems to explain why his knees hurt but his fist does not. 

            An explanation is no consolation, though. He wanders around the farmhouse in search of an open window. There is none. He views Clara through the living room window sitting on her rocking chair with crochet needles and a quilt. She appears to be content, as usual, and Jehovah is sleeping just as restfully beside her right slipper.

            Sam stares at Clara and Jehovah for the longest time, but of course there is no change. He could stay there forever, and the darkness everywhere is not going to get any closer to dawn. 

            He finally leaves the farmhouse. He hobbles down the country road in search of a home with an open door or window. He finds one, but notwithstanding his focus and strength he cannot open the freezer door there anymore than he can open up an outside door or window. He walks up the stairs and finds a guest bedroom door that is slightly ajar. He squeezes into the bedroom and lies on top of a concrete hard bed. 

            And he tries to sleep….

            But sleep is not possible for him. He can close his eyes all he wants, but he is not going to fall asleep. 

            He leaves that home eventually, and continues down the road in the general direction of California. At some point along the way he finds a country home with an open door and iced cubes in a bowl. The owner is in suspended animation preparing a cocktail for the evening. Sam walks around him, and tries to remove just one of the iced cubes from the bowl. He cannot lift it. In placing his hand on the ice, he realizes it would not help him anyway. The ice is immovably hard, but it leaves no sensation on his hand. It is certainly not cold. It is lukewarm and grey, like a cardboard cutout of ice on a movie set. 

            He continues west. The pain in his knees never goes away, and he never gets accustomed to it. With every labored step forward he winces, but even when he sits down on the side of the road or reclines on somebody’s bed it is just as bad. The pain is a constant. Without the forward march of time, it cannot dull into something else. 

            Sam cannot eat. He cannot lift food; and when he finds food on the side of the road, and bends down to try to take a bite from it, the food is too hard. To the extent the outer shell of food has any taste at all, it reminds him of hardened wax, although that may be his imagination. 

            Though he cannot eat, he is never hungry. Neither is he thirsty. He is the man he was the moment he broke the stopwatch. 

            As for the stopwatch, he stares at the damned thing with the same contempt a husband has for a wife he wants to murder. The thin red hand keeps moving from one second to the next. He tries to remove the battery, but he cannot open the little door on its backside. He tries to smash it under his feet. Surely, the red hand cannot continue to count off seconds, if it is smashed to bits. He cannot smash it, though, as much as he cannot open a door or pick up a piece of fruit. 

            Even when he throws the stopwatch as far as he can, he never sees or hears it land anywhere; and the next thing he knows it is right back inside his pocket ticking away the seconds. The bitch is not granting him a divorce. She will continue to smile at him with that ugly crack on her glass face, as Sam hobbles with excruciating anger and pain into his endless night. 

*   *   *

The Sheriff had promised his wife for months that he would give up drinking. He had been reluctant to do so, until the night he saw that city dude cowering before Old Man Draeger’s storefront. He had seen him around town, and he had figured out he was up to no good. Until he caught him in the act, though, or someone came up to the station and filed a report, there was nothing he could do. As such, the Sheriff had been more than a little excited when he saw the cock of the walk acting suspicious in front of his friend’s pawnshop. The Sheriff kept his eyes on him the whole time. That damned city slicker was not going to sneak off until the Sheriff had had his chance to get in his face. The Sheriff either would bust him for something or send him packing.

And then in the blink of an eye the city slicker was gone. 

The Sheriff stood there, dumbfounded, until Old Man Draeger came outside, and asked him what was up. He tried to explain, but could not mutter a word. 

Had that been an elaborate hallucination? Did the whiskey he keep under his desk impair him that much? The Sheriff was not sure, but he foreswore alcohol from that moment onward. 

Before the Sheriff could leave for home, Deborah Bling ran down to him. She pointed excitedly up the street. She could not say a word, but the Sheriff decided to take a look anyway. 

The Sheriff, Old Man Draeger, and Deborah found Sam Banks on the road two blocks up. He had fallen to his knees on the asphalt. He had dropped a stopwatch on the road, and with the aid of the Sheriff’s flashlight Old Man Draeger had identified it as belonging to him. The old man pocketed the stopwatch, as Deborah glared at him.

The Sheriff figured that Sam was in some sort of shock. He did not move, nor even seem to breathe, and no one could move him. When the paramedics arrived at the scene, they could not find any vital signs, and concluded that he had died. It was the most abnormal corpse anyone had ever seen, though, since it stood upright upon its knees and could not be moved even when chained to the back of a moving truck. 

Needless to say, the unmovable corpse became a local attraction. Since it did not decay, the city council decided eventually to designate it as a statue, and in time they blocked off that portion of the street accordingly. People came from all around the state to view it. Everlasting, North Dakota, competed with Roswell, New Mexico, as a destination point for people who stay up all night listening to “Coast to Coast AM.” Not everyone in town liked the added exposure, but the tourism revenue did come in handy. Sam Banks may have been a man on the move in his day, but in the end he left his lasting legacy on a small town noted for the slow passage of time. 

Published by Michael Sean Erickson

I write, act, and produce films in Los Angeles. Everything else is conjecture.

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