Do You Have the Time? – Audrey Redmond
June 30, 2023
James Hurley hasn’t been able to tell the correct time in over six years. Coworkers, strangers, family members, and even the waitress at the diner he frequents, all know to never ask James what time it is. Before, they would say “Hey that’s a nice-looking watch, can you give me the time?” Being the honest man he was, James would always say the same thing, “I’m sorry, but I don’t have the time.” Bewildered by this man wearing a perfectly good watch, they would think he was pulling their leg or something. When they laughed, James would simply offer up his wrist. When it was sunny, the watch would read eleven pm and when the moon came out, it was six am.
Now, James always got the same sort of response from most people, “Say, James, it’s a beautiful watch and all, but I mean what good is it doing you? Why don’t you get yourself a working one?” James would just shake his head.
So, people stopped asking James for the time, and for the most part, they stopped asking him altogether about the broken watch. That was all well and good for James. Part of him knew he would never tell anyone about the day he got the watch. It’s not like they really seemed to care about it anyways. He reserved the memory of the watch in a part of his brain that no one else was allowed to enter.
On July 10th, 1973, James took a train from Connecticut to Rhode Island. He had just graduated from Trinity and was in need of a break from his hometown. He rented a bedroom in Newport. He planned to write as much as he could while enjoying the beaches and probably working at one of those fancy beachfront restaurants.
When James entered the train car, he was surprised to see it was mostly vacant. He figured families would be flocking to the beaches. In a state of contentment, he sets his bags down and begins to read the novel he packed. James can remember the smallest of details from this day and notes that the novel was Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins.
It’s not until the steward with the drink cart comes, that James realizes that there’s another man in the car with him. It’s almost as if this person just materialized out of thin air, that’s how quiet the car had been. Being rational, James presumes he was just too engrossed in the novel to realize he wasn’t alone. He tries not to think so much about it, but he’s unable to focus now.
Time hasn’t passed, he thinks. He looks down at his wrist, only to discover he forgot to put on his watch that morning. He curses lightly under his breath. Time has always been important to James. Am I going to make it to class? Do I have enough time to stop for a coffee? How many years have I wasted and do I get them back? How many more minutes do I still have with this person before it’s the last time? And then, how do we ever know how much time we all have left?
James decides he really needs to know the time. He gets up from his seat to find the other passenger, who’s only a few rows in front of him.
When he gets there, he is greeted by a man about the same age as him. He’s got sandy blonde hair that reminds James of the Newport beaches he’s so close to being on. His skin is freckled and tan. Probably, from California.
“Excuse me,” James coughs slightly in an attempt to not catch the man off guard. “Do you have the time?” The stranger offers him a smile, looks down at his watch, and begins to laugh.
“I’m so sorry. I don’t even know why I still wear this thing.” He takes a hand through his hand. “It hasn’t worked properly in years.” James nods, finding this rather curious. What a strange thing it is to wear something that hasn’t worked in so long. What good is it anymore?
A similar understanding seemed to settle between the two men at that moment. Both were curious about one another. Maybe, because they were all alone together in this car. Maybe, because neither one of them knew the time. But as James recalls, it wasn’t just boredom. He doesn’t know what it was really. He thinks there’s not even a word to describe what he felt then.
“Why don’t you take a seat?”
So James did and they exchanged pleasantries. The man’s name was Willy. He was twenty-two and was indeed from California. He was visiting a friend in Providence for the summer. Willy was a photographer and was hoping to capture some of the everyday people in the NorthEast. He was tired of the same faces where he was from.
After a while, Willy pulled out his camera. “Can I take your picture, James?” James, whose attention was on the photobook placed on his lap by the man across from him, just nodded. The heat slowly rose to his cheeks as he heard the camera whir and click.
“You sure are talented Willy. These are incredible.”
James never liked having his picture taken. But even as he sat there, face red as the hair on his own head, things were different. The act of having someone look at you behind the lens of a camera offered him a beautiful sense of nostalgia. Like going to Coney Island with your best friend on your sixteenth birthday and getting your photo taken in one of those booths.
“Sorry.” Willy’s soft voice came from behind the camera before he put it down. “You’re just a really interesting subject.” He gestured down to the portraits in the book. “I always try to tell a story for the person whose picture I’m taking. If I can do that, then I think that I’ve succeeded somehow.” He fidgets with the camera a few more times before putting it away. He sits back in the seat, folding his hands behind his head. James notices how comfortable Willy seems to be around him, or maybe that’s just the person he is. The one who’s able to make anyone feel safe, even if they are just a stranger.
“What about you James? You got any of your writing I can read?”
“Uh, well, yeah. I’ve been uh trying to finish this one for a while.” James fishes a folded-up piece of paper out of his pocket, attempting to smooth it out over his knee. “But I’m just having trouble finding the right words to finish it.” He hands it over to Willy.
Willy took his time reading that poem. It was only a few lines, but he sure took a while. James could see his eyes going over each word again and again as if he was trying to memorize the thing. When Willy finally did look up, those blue eyes seemed to be a whole lot bluer to James. He swore they looked like they were full of tears.
“This, uh. I mean this is really something James. I think-” He paused for a little bit. “I mean I think it’s beautiful just like that. Don’t need to add or change anything.” Willy nods to himself like he’s still trying to gather his thoughts. He leans forward a bit, just enough to grab James’ attention. “Listen. You got to keep this up, man. Writing I mean. I’m jealous, I really am. I try so hard to tell some sort of story with my work, but this is something else. I could never write that well, it’s not even that. I mean most of the time, I can’t even find any words to describe how I’m feeling. But, God James, I feel like you just took all of those things I’ve been feeling and you put them into some of the most beautiful words I’ve ever read.”
A silence fell between the two of them. A comfortable one. One in which they just sat peacefully in the presence of each other, observing truly how lucky this train ride had turned out to be. The pair sat like this for a while. James observes Willy in the same way he had read the poem. He wanted to observe this stranger for as long as he could, afraid there was not enough time in the world to memorize all of his features. Willy has that photo. But how could he remember?
No sooner did this thought occur to him, the train began to pull into the station, signaling they had arrived. Whatever had transpired between the two men was coming to an end. Willy sighed deeply, rubbing his face with his hands as if trying to wake himself from a daze. James refused to pull his eyes from the man, all at the same trying to conjure up the right words to say.
Willy’s eyes met his own now. Those blue eyes stared intently into his own. They were both memorizing each other, trying so hard to hold onto anything tangible.
James found himself exhaling, although it came out more of a choked sob. He was running out of time again. Why did he always feel like he never had enough time?
Willy leaned forward slightly, nudging James softly with his knee. He wanted James to speak. There it was again. That sense that everything was going to be alright. And that feeling that no matter what happened, maybe that could always have this. Time could pass, as it so naturally does but it wouldn’t make a difference. Not to the two of them at least. They would always be holding onto this moment in the train car at 3 o’clock or 7 o’clock or whatever time it was.
And so James, with whatever he had left in him, finally mustered up the question he had wanted to ask Willy so desperately since he brought out that camera.
“You said you wanted to tell stories with your pictures? What kind of story are you going to tell with mine?”
Willy, for the last time, laughed. It was almost cruel how perfect the sound was. Like a momentous symphony, his laugh is the soft violin playing above all of the chaos. “James, I think you know what kind of story I’m going to tell.” In an instant, he slipped off his watch and folded it into James’ hand, holding it there for a moment. The warmth between the two hands stoked the fire that was building in both of their bellies. Desperately, Willy needed to put it out. “Y’know, sometimes I think it’s best not to have any clue what time it is.”
With that, James was left facing an empty seat and the feeling of the cold metal between his fingers. Willy had seemed to vanish into thin air.
James spent that summer writing, bussing tables, and asking everyone he encountered if they knew of a photographer named Willy. Nobody did.
That poem has never been read by anybody but the two people who were on that train car in 1973. Maybe Willy still remembers the poem, at least that’s what James likes to think. Perhaps he dashed off that train and wrote it all down on a napkin he got from some bathroom. That didn’t matter though. Willy has the photos. James has the watch.
For the past six years, anyone who has ever met James Hurley knows that he no longer cares about the time.