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  barry yourgrau: At the Clockmaker's

After the procedure, I convalesce in a little corner room of planked walls crowded under the eaves, It's not exactly commodious, but fresh air and warmth enter through the bright, parted curtains of the window, and at day's end, the clockmaker's wife comes to wheel me out onto the porch. I sit with the tartan blanket over my lap, in the company of the other customer here. The lake shines below us through the creaking poles of the pine trees, and the ducks slowly lift their kite-tail colonies into the air and start their beat across our panorama. The air smells of resin in a softly bracing way.

My companion-in-repair and I exchange our customary daily inquiries and reports, We're casualities of romance, the two of us, and of a very particular breed: our hearts, it turns out, are cuckoo clocks. That's the kind of guys we are, and we've come here into the pine woods to have things mended. In my case, the clockmaker has had to completely remove the antique, hand-carved resident robin, so badly mangled was it in the disaster of a love affair. It's replacement alas resembles more a chickadee, and it doesn't pop from its walnut-wood hatch with quite the zing of the former much-beloved model. I'm staying on these several days more while the clockmaker continues to tinker, as he does with my colleague, whose splendid minideer antlers snapped in several places when he caught his wife cheating, for the third time. Then his spring mechanism succumbed to inner rust, and his minute hand simply stopped.

So we sit together taking the air, and the clockmaker appears with his clay pipe unlit in his teeth and his green box of tools. He bids good evening. "Whose turn first tonight?" he inquires. It's mine, and I tell him how my day went. He listens, nodding. With a finger he steadies the little acorn-weighted pendulum in front of my chest, and probes, and sets to work with his tiny file and diminutive screwdriver. I smell his warm tobacco- and coffee-scented breath as he feels in with the thin tube of the oilcan. The oil is cool as it drips and I give a ticklish laugh. The clockmaker grins absorbed, and shifts his pipe and coaxes the wooden tenant out between fingertips. He maneuvers it back and forth a few times, to work the oil into the mechanism. "That should be better now," he says finally. He consults his pocket watch and resets my time.

Then he turns his attention to his other charge, and I look on, marveling again at his delicacy and dexterity, so unexpected from the bluntness and haleness of his appearance. He reminds me of an oak stump in a field.

He finishes his adjustments to my neighbor, and steps back, wiping his fingers on his venerable suede apron. "Alright, gentlemen," he declares, and he looks from one to the other of us, like a conductor readying his band. There's a pause, then the hour strikes in each of our convalescing chests, and on cue the dainty shutters spring open and our birdies thrust their way proudly into public -- my rotund chickadee, my colleague's funny little hen (a design notion courtesy of his mother...). Zestfully they deliver their exclamations. The clockmaker bends his head to attend each in turn, listening for fluency and nimbleness, for soundness of chime. When the shutters have closed, he wags a thoughtful finger in my direction. "Not quite true yet," he says. "But it's a change of wood, which always makes for a difficult balance." "It's just not the old design, is it?" I muse, on a wistful note. "But it's a very fine one; and it'll last you for years," he says, reassuring me.

He leaves us, and we sit before the darkening view until it's time for supper back in our rooms. We're still not quite strong enough for the common table, so our own society will have to stand us for the evening. We chat, as ever, about what others on this porch have always talked about -- what calamities brought us hither, what prospects await, once repairs are complete. And of course, the abiding, quaintly embarrassing, mystery of it all, of being men whose hearts are kitschy gadgets, whose loving souls consist of petite decorated wooden cabinets -- knickknack places excerpted from children's books, and occupied by handcrafted simulacra of diminutive, domesticated wildlife. Whose song is the eternal, merry outcry of the goofball and the lunatic: two syllables! two syllables! My companion sighs and gestures to himself, and exclaims disconsolately, as he does at some point every evening, "Ah, it's so hard to find a woman, who really understands...all this!" I have to nod in agreement, sitting beside him, feeling the slow, regular weight of my pendulum.

Around us the evening shadows knit into the fabric of one continuous darkness. Early stars hang like ornaments among the top branches of the pines. The cry of a lone, separated bird drifts from the lake; and the clockmaker's wife comes out onto the porch with her lantern. 
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Excerpted from The Sadness of Sex, by Barry Yourgrau. Copyright © 1995 Barry Yourgrau. Excerpted by permission of Dell Publishing, a division of the Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Photo of Barry Yourgrau copyright © Michael Grecco.