I last saw it sixteen years ago, still remember every detail of the watch.
I was on a road trip with friends. I don’t remember the city name; we just stopped because the bars looked inviting and, I think, because we saw a group of slightly underdressed girls walking into one of them.
A round of drinks; dance; a round; trying to chat up girls. It was a good night. One of the guys hit it off with a local girl in a short black dress; the rest of us watched from the safety of the bar. A horribly smelling guy walked past us. Somebody bought a round of tequila. I licked the salt; poured the hot and cold liquid down my throat; bit the lime. That’s where my memory ends.
I woke up at the side of a road. The hard sand below me was as dry as my throat.
The clothes from the party were still on my body: black t-shirt, washed out jeans, sneakers. Apart from the fact that I couldn’t see a single house in the distance only one thing was wrong:
There was a watch on my arm. Shining steel with small golden details woven around the sides; two golden clock hands slowly moving across a silver and white background that reflected the sun.
Dazed and confused I walked along the street; it seemed like the right thing to do.
At 2pm I was still walking. In the distance, in all directions, was nothing but sand and hills made of sand. My head felt heavy.
The dust cloud came first; then a white pickup truck appeared in it.
I waved frantically and I would have jumped up and down if my body would have allowed it.
The car came closer and slowed. The dust blew in my face and made me cough.
I hurried after it. Breaks squeaked.
“Are you insane?” said a rusty male voice.
His face looked more broken than his voice sounded. Deep scars dug into his cheek.
“Are you trying to kill yourself? What are you doing out here on your own? What is wrong with you?”
Even my eyes felt dry. I tried to answer; nothing but coughs came out of my throat.
The last thing I remember was my face in the reflection of his window; the sand in my blond hair and my skin pale with red spots.
I must have passed out in his car.
Water poured in my mouth and continued into my lungs. I coughed myself awake.
His shack was dirty and every corner filled with tools. The bed felt hard under the thick pillows.
“You okay, son?”
A croaking sound left my voice.
“You’ll be fine,” he said. “What the heck were you thinking?”
I shook my head.
“What’s your name, son?”
I opened my mouth and paused. Then, without a sound, closed it again.
Apparently I had been in a desert; far away from any town that I remembered ever seeing. Beside that I didn’t remember any towns. Or any people. Or any names.
Not even my own.
His name was Jack. In lieu of a name he just called me “son.”
He allowed me to sleep on his rotten couch. With every night the faces I had seen on the road trip got more blurred. I remembered the short black dress and I remembered that I had friends and that we were on a road trip, but not more.
My pockets were empty except for a few crumpled bills. The only thing I had was the watch – silver and gold. Even as I was convinced that the watch was not mine I clicked the wristband open again and again to find any signs of my former life. The only thing I found, carved intricately into the back of the watch, was a short sentence.
“Fresh luck to its owner.”
Jack was kind-hearted. He even fixed his old radio so that I could listen to the news to, hopefully, hear any information about myself – or maybe just to make me remember.
After four days Jack brought me to the police station. Surprisingly it is hard to report yourself as a missing person. They took me in, held me for a day in a cell with bare cement walls, and told me to stay in touch. Jack picked me up again. He had to drive for nearly an hour, but his was the only number I knew.
Jack gave me some of his old clothes. They had holes and the shirt was too short and the pants too wide. Still I was glad. I still think of him like a father. In a way Jack granted me life.
His property was uphill and shaded for part of the day by a mountain. I helped him with his farm work and in the small, dry forest near the hut. I switched between the three sets of clothes he gave me. The only thing I had with me at all times was the watch
During my breaks I took it off, over and over again, to find any signs of who I was. I didn’t want to be Son, I wanted to have a name.
“Fresh luck to its owner.”
By the day that sentence seemed more soothing. My past life didn’t seem to matter anymore. Fresh luck. New life.
It must have been after about three months. Jack cut his arm on a tree stump. He ignored it. The sand and maybe other things were blown in his wound.
The infection struck him down within hours. At first he was cheerful, he didn’t even seem to feel the cut. Then he got tired and hot. Then he fainted.
I disinfected Jack’s wound with part of his rich alcohol supply. Still, the next day, the color had changed to a light green.
I drove him back to the city. I didn’t know the way – I just followed the road until signs appeared. I didn’t look back.
The doctor said there was a chance, but it would be expensive. I told him that we had no money – and couldn’t even give the name of a friend.
I tried to drive back out to Jack’s hut to find money, or at least an ID, but I didn’t know where to go. All I could do was to drive straight and to try and remember something – but there was nothing to be remembered; just sand and dry grass and hills that all looked alike.
Then the watch came to me. It reflected the setting sun and, within an instant, I knew what to do.
I drove back as fast as possible – which was not very fast. By the time I arrived Jack was attached to machines. They said they needed to operate and that it would b expensive. They told me the pawn shop was just around the corner.
The pawn shop clerk was impressed by the watch. He looked at it and smiled.
“Not bad,” he said.
We bargained. He saw my desperation.
In the end he offered me just enough to pay for the operation.
We shook hands on it.
I clicked on the small metal buttons to open the watch. There was no click.
For more than an hour I tried to get the watch open or to at least push it over my hand.
The only result was ripped skin and an angry pawn shop clerk. He offered me 500 for the car.
By the time I arrived back at the hospital Jack’s chest had stopped moving.
I sank on the floor and cried.
Nobody recognized him.
No dental records.
A first name and a property in the hills was not enough to find a record of who he was. For me I had even less to go on.
For three days I lived on the street; then I hitched a ride to a bigger town.
I hitched north and west to try and get away from the heat. The rides were rare but free. Still the 500 were quickly gone and I got stranded in a city.
I should have at least counted the days, but when you beg for food your mind, at some point, just turns off. It needs to turn off to handle the endless chain of rejection; to handle the fact that so many have so much and walk past you, briskly, while you have none.
Sitting on that street corner it was easy to take the watch off and put it back on. But the moment I thought about selling it; the moment I thought about use the watch’s luck – it got stuck on my hand.
Once a group of youth beat me up. They had no special reason to; they just came under the bridge and threw bottles, then punches. They howled from pleasure when they saw the watch.
They held my arm straight while one of them knelt on my back. They tried to open it, but they too failed. They tried to pull it off my hand but got stuck on the bone. They laughed when I screamed from the pain.
Then there was the butterfly knife. They waved it in front of my eyes; then they set it on my skin. I felt the cold blade.
A siren. They ran. One of them was caught, the rest escaped. They loaded him in the police car. A few minutes later an officer walked under the bridge.
He asked whether I was fine.
I said “No.”
“He can still talk,” he shouted back to the car.
They drove off.
Lying there, crying from pain, I cursed the watch. I screamed I would do anything to get rid of it.
It made ‘click.’
I pulled it from my arm.
That’s when I knew.
Despite the pain I crawled back to the street and in the shopping area. I sat and begged. The blood on my face brought me more coins.
For two days I just sat there. I didn’t drink; I didn’t eat; I didn’t sleep. I just sat and begged.
Then, when night came again, I pushed myself back on my feet.
I stumbled towards the party street, all the time with nothing in my nose except my own horrid smell.
I arrived at 11pm. I found a bar without bouncer.
I tried to walk straight.
There was a group of drunk youth at the counter.
I bought them a round; then a second; then a third.
Most of them tumbled back towards the dance floor, but one stayed next to me. He said his name was Yentl. Light brown skin and dark hair.
He told me about his girlfriend and where he was from. I just nodded.
I bought him another two shots.
Then I told him what a great guy he was. I told him that I liked him a lot. I told him that I wanted to give him a gift.
The watch moved easily off my wrist. It seemed almost too easy to push it on his; as if the watch itself was eager for a new owner.
I woke up with a bad hangover on the floor of a cheap motel.
At first I had problems with the language, but it came quickly to me, as if I had known it all my life.
Some things still seem odd, like the distant relatives I don’t recognize. But I like my degree and I like my girlfriend.
I even like my name. Yentl has a nice ring to it.
The only weird thing is that the person in the mirror does not look like the one in the photos. The hair and skin and eyes have darkened, but still the person in the mirror is blond and pale. The person in the photos has black hair and light brown skin.
Even my wife says she likes the color of my skin. She says it looks and feels like “dark sand.”
I am glad that the watch is gone.
“Fresh luck to its owner.”
My wife says that the roadtrip I took after graduation has changed me. She says that since then I like to help beggars.
She doesn’t know that they remind me of who I once was.
For sixteen years I have been helping beggars. For fourteen years I am married. Our kids are twelve and ten.
I tried hard to forget that time of my life. I tried hard to pretend that I have always been Yentl.
Still, today I need to admit my past.
There was a new beggar today, I saw him while handing out blankets.
He had a young face, but he looked exhausted in the way that only hopelessness can make you feel.
He wore a dirty sweater. He smiled when I handed him the blanket. He didn’t see that I also handed him shampoo and a toothbrush.
The toothbrush fell.
He bent down to pick it up.
That’s when his sleeve was pulled back.
That’s when I saw his shiny watch.