It ended just as it began, an arbor amid chaos
City-born and bred, I barely note the streets that I crossed
To sit between two trees, a wedge of green, this bench my destination
Two bites into my sandwich, enter left, tatterdemalion.
Man, don’t sit by me! Just keep on walking — shit, he’s stopping.
Reads my thoughts despite the bland facade that I’m adopting.
Settles down on creaking bench, his knee bumps into mine
What is that SMELL? A year unwashed? Cologne or just stale wine?
‘Sixty-seven years, four months, one day, now seven minutes.
Not as long as you may think, blink twice and you might miss it.’
Apropos of nothing, takes his watch, holds out to proffer.
Take it automatically; you grow up poor, you like an offer!
But now it’s on my wrist, the strap bites down on me quite tightly
The ragged man is crying, ‘Please don’t think I did that lightly.
You stepped into my shadow, play your part, now watch me die.’
Stands, under his breath he’s counting down, and wipes his eyes.
The man adopts a regal pose, a sneer of cold command,
‘Curse me if you like, but that’s a gift put in your hands.
That watch, if you should wind it, will run backwards to your death,
What might you achieve if you’re forewarned of your last breath?’
“Or so I thought.’ Hitches his pants, tongue-tied by mathematics,
‘My seven minutes nearly gone — I hope it’s not traumatic.
A heart attack, bump on the head, last moment here on Earth.
Worse places to lay down than on this piece of Astroturf.’
Astro–what? You mean it’s fake? a second I’m distracted.
Barely see the speeding bus with which he has impacted.
Flung from view: cue not-unusual screams and sirens blaring,
But I am frozen: on my wrist the watch had just stopped ticking.
Months go by, I’m torn by private greed and fearful loathing
Discarded, watch comes back: the face is blank, the hands are waiting,
Every day enmeshed in nets of speculative questions:
How might I use this gift that measures life the wrong direction?
Then news — a friend has cancer — six months to live — world interrupted,
All those future years with wife and kids, his dreams deducted.
I start to worry, perhaps obsess, at random human frailty,
Time ebbs away no matter what, so why not use this wisely?
Six years and seven months, one lonely hour and three long minutes.
Disbelieving, wind it tighter, but then no: it sets my limit.
Sit back stunned, my breath has stopped, my eyes are making water
Frantic, time runs backwards as I ring my wife and daughter.
Before they answer, kill the call, not knowing what to say;
‘Hello love, wish you were here. Let’s not talk about my day.’
Later at home, I look at her, am filled with thoughts unkindly,
She’ll find another man and love him fierce and just as blindly.
At work, I rage behind my desk at tasks that now seem pointless,
Snap at my employer, get a message: come into my office.
No explanation or excuse, there’s no way she can condone–
–I interrupt, ‘I hate this place you bitch, I’m going home.’
Leave of absence granted, mental health, not leaving bed
“Dad’s depressed,’ I hear them whisper, voices in my head.
I’m angry all the time because all this was my own doing,
Like everything we do, there’s no saved game or quick reloading.
Six years and seven months have passed, an hour and I’m back;
One lonely tree remains, the other’s gone, the ‘grass’ is now all black.
I lost my wife when anger turned to rage, much more corrosive.
It ate away what love was left — a man, drunk and abusive.
My daughter’s scared to meet me now, except in public places.
While I avoid the public eye, preferring darker spaces.
The note I left for her today, she’ll find when I am gone
Made sure of that, don’t want her straying near until it’s done.
I see a man as young as I once was, six years ago.
Breadcrumbs from a bag he offers birds, begins to throw,
Never pigeons here before, I stand mute and amazed,
Feel him stare, but unlike me he’s confident, unfazed.
‘Help you?’ he does ask, and offers me half of his sandwich.
I look down at the watch, this thing of spite that counts life backwards.
I settle down, say ‘No thank you, but please take this advice,
Take this watch, it’s preordained, but you can slip its curse.
He looks down at the timepiece, at the minutes left remaining,
‘You’re full of shit, I’ve had enough of all of this complaining,
This city’s full of sad old men whose lives have become awkward,
Truth be told, you’re all the same, stopwatches counting backward.’
I protest — this is real! The man before hit by a bus!
Then seconds drag to minutes, my expiry has long since passed,
It dawns on me, ‘I pissed away my wife, my job, my reason.
Gave it all away, ten-dollar watch, no explanation.’
Now the young man’s gone, I’m sitting here well past my end.
What choice have I, like all old men, except to start again.
Take this worthless timepiece off my wrist, throw it away.
The only thing that matters now is how to live each day.
Erik Kaisson, 2017