The door was glass with a clear plastic handle. It fought for a second before it swung open. Joe entered the store and felt a wave of cold air roll over him, flowing out the door as if he’d set some genie free.
A clerk looked up from the counter at the back; he leaned over, said “I’ll be right with you,” and returned his attentions to a thin woman in a green dress. She had a hat with a feather and black heels. Take your time, Joe thought. The store had display cases in a U-shape, and he figured the men’s would be on the left side. They usually were. People go right if there’s nothing to tell them otherwise, and they designed these stores for women. Or men in the company of the same. He drifted to the case on the left, saw a box of matches on a silver tray with some business cards and a dish of mints. He picked up a book and slid it in his pocket, feeling for the embossed letters. He was surprised to find there weren’t any. Maybe he could afford this.
“I don’t know,” said the woman.
“We can certainly put it aside,” said the clerk.
“Oh you don’t have to do that.”
“It’s surely no bother. If you would like to come back we would be happy to show it to you again.
“I just don’t know.”
“As it happens I was going to put it aside anyway. We have another shipment in tomorrow, and I was planning to rearrange the display? You needn’t worry you’ve inconvenienced us in any way.”
“You’re getting new ones in? Tomorrow?”
“Well . . .” Joe snuck a look. She was rubbing the back of her ankle with the toe of her shoe. Go for the kill, he thought.
“Between you and me, the new line is almost indistinguishable from these, but they may be a bit higher? I can’t say, but that’s the way it goes. I’d be happy to show them to you when they come in.”
“All right,” she said. “I’ll be back.”
“Very well!” He smiled and put the tray back in the case. “Either way, the quality will be the same. Seventeen jewels.”
“Thank you,” she said.
“Not at all.”
She turned and walked out. She had to tug the door hard to get it to open.
“May I help you?”
“Think she’ll be back?”
The salesman pursed his lips, and nodded. “She didn’t take a card. When they’re not coming back they take a card. When they buy they take some mints.”
“I just took a matchbook. What does that make me?”
“A man who smokes and needs a watch?”
“Yeah.” Joe took the matchbook out of his pocket. “Get these from the watch company, don’t you.”
“I suppose. I sell the watches. The manager is in charge of promotional material. What can I help you with today?”
“You get a lot of call for pocket watches?”
“It varies. They’re still quite popular with some men. Tradition, you know. One fellow likes to check his wrist every few minutes, another sort of man likes the ritual of taking out the watch from a vest pocket. Although we have adjusted with the times. The Yankee no longer has a cover over the bezel. The act of snapping it open was a step they removed as a concession to modern times.” He smiled. “Would you like to see one? You do seem more the wrist-watch type, if I can presume.”
“No, that’s fine. Not my style. Something . . . plain, but not cheap.”
“Of course. These . . . “ he withdrew a tray from the display case. “ . . . are very popular. You’ll note the numbers have been eliminated, except for the standard quarter-hour positions. It strikes a balance between traditional and forward-thinking faces.”
“Why are they all at 8:20?”
“On the matchbook. They’re at 8:20.”
“I suppose it shows off the face to its best advantage.”
“I’ll bet they studied that one for months. You know it’s not 8:20 in the morning. You’re at work and the day’s starting and the whole day’s ahead, and it’s only 20 after. So no one thinks it’s AM. But 8:20 at night, that’s different. You still have some time left for the day, and it’s yours. I never noticed that before.”
The salesman nodded, patient.
“But you can’t have the watches in here show 8:20, because they need to be ticking. So here it’s always now. On the matchbook it’s always the perfect time of the day.”
“Would you like to see what the watch looks like at 8:20?”
Joe looked at the watch. It would do.
“Does it keep good time? I was late for an appointment yesterday.”
“Seventeen jewels. Finest Swiss movement. This model will be accurate to a minute within a year, but of course if you’d like to see something that -”
“No, that’s fine. I’ll take it.”
“Very good. Shall I wrap it up?”
“I’ll wear it.”
The store had no cash register out front; the clerk went in the back room to ring up the purchase. He returned with the change, and gave Joe the empty case for the watch.
“So nothing new’s coming in for men’s watches tomorrow,” Joe said. He strapped the watch on his wrist. It felt good.
“Not that I know, no.” The salesman smiled and made a small bow.
Joe nodded. “Well, thanks.”
He passed the silver tray, and turned. “How many mints do they usually take?”
“Three,” said the salesman.
The door fought him for a second, then swung open. The heat rushed in like it was looking for someone.