Goin’ Down Slow: A Commentary on Time from my book on Tom Waits’ Songs

Some nights lasted forever, the bands of time stretching out like the taffy from cold molasses, rich and dark and thin without ever seeming to break on the shoals of morning until they were invisible to the eye. Such nights were impossible to identify from the early mornings, they only began to surface once the water was up to the crotch and rising. By midafternoon each day was like another, a long string of beads that had an end but was pulled from a bag of tomorrows so you never knew until the last bead escaped. The early evening’s liquid embrace of the heat of afternoon turned to frantic energy gave no clue as well. Only once the clock was climbing the slow-motion mountain of the night did the dark proclaim itself, and he knew he was back in another massy place where time was Einstein-slow and Schrödinger-uncertain.

This was one of those nights. He’d waited through the day as though for a dentist appointment, the vague pain of normal life pulling at his jaw, but as the dark began to creep over the city, coming first from the mountains and then along the flat land and finally rising from the sea, he began to suspect the minute hands of slowing, pulling themselves only reluctantly past each hour’s marker. The second hand too, was sweeping more quickly at first, but as reluctant as glue on a windowpane, caught in the jelly of the impending weight, it crept forward, its rapid jerk turned to anxious thrusts.

It might have been the lack of waves offshore. That would sometimes slow the entire city to a crawl. Or perhaps the drifting clouds, that would normally be driven back and forth by the tug and pull of land breeze and sea. Sometimes he even wondered if he were the one, somehow unravelling the ballet of normal living until the legs arched and the toes uncurled and left the body behind. He’d seen nights like this one before, and sometimes he’d sought to escape into sleep. He’d feel the slowdown around midnight, like Bangkok rush hour caught by the sticky heat of the King’s anthem and therefore commanded to a crawl. Once he slept his dreams would chase him from theme to denouement, each demanding and suggesting, until in the journey through the night he’d only slept an hour or so, his body and mind so active that he’d had to rein them back just to get out of bed.

Nights like these it was best to ride it out. Like the first time user on mushrooms, he was going to let the flow take him, and if it stalled in the gutter or the food tray at the movie theatre, or a drunk tank, that’s where he’d wait out the endless night.

When he would try to explain the dripping of the minutes to a friend, they would nod as if they knew and offer advice about women or cutting down on the booze. Strangers in bars, more honestly, recoiled, and he’d learned to judge people he didn’t know by whether they felt the same phenomena. He approached them on an angle, like sneaking up on a chicken. But instead of reaching out in a leap to throttle them into knowledge, he’d suggest the clock was out of sync. If the look of recognition came he knew he’d found a companion for the endless hours, some haunted look that sought the same when the minutes were on the rack of hours and the hours had been tortured into days.

Then they would say no more about it, and instead set their teeth to endure, hands clamped to the bar for safety as the thick tar of time flowed around them, rising to the knees and over, dampening their trousers with a sticky residue that would be impossible to remove from the weave. They would wait while ten o’clock forced its way along the wall, a huge man pushing past them on the sidewalk for the bus, and then settled in for the fight as eleven peeked over the edge of the hour and then, as slowly as a foot-long cockroach in the gloom, approached in the dark. Once eleven was underway, twelve seemed to arrive more quickly. Only a day or two would pass as the barkeep took hours to trickle a drink into a glass, and the blinks of the patrons were a drooping eyelid to close and many minutes to open.

Twelve was the hardest hour of all, for it was time’s own peak of the mountain, and nearly all clocks strained toward it. The analogs, with their sweeping hands, hesitated and they fought with twelve, unable to approach directly and sometimes failing. Most clocks died just before midnight, Tom had heard from a wizened man at a repair shop, while others had died in their glory after the hour was achieved. After twelve, he and his seatmate would usually congratulate themselves on the accomplishment, the uneven tick of the seconds dripping like a faulty faucet, by times long trickles, by times anticipation of a drop which hung under the outlet like a cloud on a cloudless day.

The night pressed in on itself after midnight, and the hours crawled by on all fours to bedroom doors, the minutes trailing from their pockets and leaving a slimy trail on the stair, the seconds left behind in someone else’s bed. By one he would have settled himself in for the voyage. It was never easy once the crest was achieved; after that it was the descent, more dangerous than the climb. It was too easy to sprain an ankle or slip on a rock, to be hurled howling into the blank time below with a broken back and bleeding from the mouth. After one, care was demanded, and Tom had seen people who hadn’t made it past such a small sharp hour.

By two there was more space to stand, as the hours unfolded as if they were going to double their way to morning. Talk began again, water flowed more easily, and the long honey moments of one were not quite gone but had been watered past what would sell on a grocer’s shelf. Three was easy after two, and by that time the liquor helped. It forced time back into its bucket; like a pile of eels wriggling on the table, it was manageable if messy. Holding down his gorge, Tom could fight with three. It was at least something a man could get his hands on, and before long four would come, with its reminders of dawn somewhere over the mountains, and the crusty-eyed resilience demanded for journey into the day.

It wasn’t everyone who could make it through to morning on such a night, but there were shelters and diners all over the city to help them acclimatize. Usually he’d spill off the bar stool at closing and seek out an all-night, off-the-strip, jukebox at every table place until he could sort out what had been done to the timing in the songs. Four would wrench only slowly on the cap of five. Some said it was the hardest hour, although anyone who had made it past midnight had the skills, the wary sense of disdain and almost frightening prophetic insight that could make it into the watery light of morning.

It would usually take four cups of coffee to face the dawn, but once it came, some force, a gigantic boot on the horizon, would kick the day into starting and all the clocks would shudder as though released. Jumping ahead a few seconds they would reset into a more functional timescape, and sugar would spill from the paper packet in tiny grains like an hourglass, each one more rapid than the last, until the table was sanded and the server’s eyes were red.

By then Tom knew he had won, that the ruptured guts of the night had been gathered up again by unwashed hands, shoved back into the cavity and then stapled in place. When the sewing was done, the skin puckered into long folds, no one even remembered the sticky entrails spilled on the street, although they guessed the knife that did the stabbing, even if it was gone, would likely reappear.

About Barry Pomeroy

I had an English teacher in high school many years ago who talked about writing as something that people do, rather than something that died with Shakespeare. I began writing soon after, maudlin poetry followed by short prose pieces, but finally, after years of academic training, I learned something about the magic of the manipulated word.
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