The Wrist Watch
The Wrist Watch


Sandra Nipper Ratledge

Some stories from the twentieth century seem foolish and unlikely nowadays, that is, unless you listen to a firsthand account. Like scenes on Keats's Grecian Urn, some incidents become frozen in memory for an eyewitness. Here is such a story from my experience as a jewelry store clerk in Athens, Tennessee. The Good Lord had blessed me with a job at Wilson Jewelry, Inc., a small business owned and operated by Harry Joe "Pete" Wilson and wife Irene S. (Murray) Wilson, daughter of Harry E. and Mary Murray. For four years, I worked there part-time during the school year and full-time during summers to pay tuition and costs at Tennessee Wesleyan College where I graduated in 1970. I began earning ninety cents an hour which rose gradually to $1.90 hourly wages by 1970.

Around Athens, everyone knew Pete Wilson was trustworthy and sold only the best timepieces. Repairing watches and setting diamonds was his specialty since he was a trained watch repairman and a certified gemologist. Both he and Irene labored tirelessly for many years to establish the business and gain the respect of their clientele.

Watch repair was a viable business in the first half of the twentieth century. During World War I, for the first time, watches worn around the wrist proved more advantageous to soldiers in the field than pocket watches. Thus afterwards, various types of wrist watches came into vogue and great demand by the general public. These new watches were quite expensive, however, until television commercials popularized the Timex brand during the 1950s. Suddenly, the common masses could afford a watch. For Christmas, parents like mine bought their youngsters a watch decorated with Cinderella or Mickey Mouse on the dial. Everybody, or so it seemed to me, could afford a wrist watch from Woolworth's Five & Dime. Such was not the case, I learned, much to my surprise, from this experience at the jewelry store.

Undoubtedly, the most unforgettable customer to jingle our shop bell was an old fellow seeking a ladies' wrist watch. That was an insipid, late summer day. Sluggishly, spun the four blades of the fan suspended overhead. As if following this example from above, we clerks dusted the dustless shelves like zombies in the midday August heat. Through the jewelry shop window, I could see heat waves rippling high above the sidewalk and making the stores across the street seem to sway.

That morning had been hotter inside the store than outside because of the rows of spotlights both overhead and within the display counters. Fortunately, the closed front door blocked out the extreme heat intensified by Friday afternoon traffic along Jackson Street.

Hoping Mr. Wilson wouldn't notice, the other clerk whispered to me, "Why do the days this week seem to drag on and on and on?"

"It's always like this in August," I replied, "at least since I've been here. Everybody buys graduation presents in May, wedding presents in June and July, and nothing in August. Then we start gettin' ready for Christmas in the fall."

Mrs. Wilson, co-owner and manager of the firm, apparently overheard some of our conversation and interjected, "Well, girls, I know our business is slow now, but that gives us a good opportunity to make everything especially tidy."

"But Mrs. Wilson," my co-worker bravely argued, failing to heed whatsoever my rolling eyeballs and my foot tapping hers, "we've cleaned these same dishes and shelves ever day this week."

"Well, first of all, they're not dishes! We sell only the finest china," Mrs. Wilson corrected.

"Oh, yes, sorry, Ma'am!"

With disdain, Mrs. Wilson continued, "That dust from the street follows every customer in the door and finds its way miraculously to our glass shelves. I've told you how the lights illuminate and exaggerate dust particles."

"We'd make it much cooler in here if we'd just turn off the lights, and Mrs. Wilson, then you couldn't see . . ." the other clerk continued much to my dismay.

"Oh dear child, if you want to sell, you display products to their best advantage -- not in shadows!"


"And since you're tired of dusting these shelves, begin taking down all the silver holloware and washing it thoroughly in the back room. Sandy, you can finish the glass shelves out here." She strolled away.

With sweat flowing along her furrowed eyebrows, my friend whispered anxiously, "Does she mean all three display cases on the wall?"

"Of course! I guess you'll open your mouth again soon, won't you? Sorry, but I tried to warn you! Now we can't work together the rest of the day."

"But them last three hours will seem like six!"

"I know. I dread the last thirty minutes especially because the afternoon sun hits the window and door."

So, on we workers worked and wiped and wished. My co-worker was removing yet another shelf of silver when possibly our fourth customer of the day entered. She glanced at him and immediately decided she was extremely busy with silver.

On a sultry breeze, he strutted in, garbed in rags of mismatched clothing. When he stopped and placed his fingers in his hip pockets, we could see that his torn and faded shirt was soaked with sweat from armholes to waist.

"Whur's you'uns watches?" he asked loudly, violating our silence.

Smiling somewhat pretendedly perhaps, our boss approached the man, for Mr. Wilson always assisted the watch customers. "Good afternoon! I'm Pete Wilson, proprietor. Are you interested in a gentleman's --"

"Naw, naw. I got no use fer it myself! It's fer the little woman!" Shifting position and folding his arms, he now placed his charred hands beneath his armpits. Streaks of black fingerprints shined above his back pockets.

"What type of watch were you considering?"

"Nuthin' fancy -- jist a plain wrist watch. Whur's the cheapest uns?"

Mr. Wilson feigned another amusement, a mannerism he had developed over the years. "You do a lot to sell merchandise -- " he had always told me. "You smile and be polite, helpful, and friendly because your customer is always right."

"These are our most reasonably priced wrist watches. Does your wife prefer yellow or white gold?"

"Aw, she don't know! What's the cheapest price fer one of 'em?"

"We don't carry anything except excellent quality timepieces. But I do have a very good sale on moderately priced watches. This particular design, for example," he explained, lifting a boxed watch from beneath the showcase, "has been discontinued by the company, so I'm selling it at a discount for $19.95."

Shaking his head as if in disbelief at the exorbitant price, the man exclaimed, "That's a heck of a lot of money!"

"Hmmm, well, if you're interested and you can pay cash today, I'll even knock off the tax on it. What about that? You won't find a better deal anywhere in town!"

The customer tilted his head, drew up one side of his mouth, and sucked the black, rotting holes in his teeth. Dried snuff or tobacco juice outlined the creases extending from the corners of his mouth. "Well, I jist don't know hardly."

Shifting his arm from its folded position to a vertical one, he began stroking his unshaven face as though this would aid in decision-making. Distant as I was, I could still hear the scraping noise of his calloused hands in friction with his bristly beard. Immediately, I began pressing my damp dust cloth harder and harder against the slick glass counter hoping the resulting screeching of cleanliness would drown all other noise for me. The man bent down to study the watch more closely and braced himself with his hands on his knees.

Mr. Wilson shook his head slightly and smiled with as much disbelief as the customer had shown about the price of the watch. And, on we workers worked and continued to work attending our business of keeping busy.

"Have you decided to make a purchase? Do you have cash?"

"Shore -- I hain't never charged nuthin' in my life!" he vowed as he pulled a change purse from his pocket and began digging. He slapped down a grimy, limp hundred-dollar-bill on the spotless glass counter top.

"Shall we gift wrap this watch perhaps as a birthday present or anniversary --"

"Naw," he answered shaking his head, "hit's jist fer my wife. She's always wanted one. Then, she up and died on me last night -- so I wanted to see her put away right."

After pocketing his recounted change, he added as he opened the door to the roasting heat, "Better late than never, I always say!"

I spied a self-contained amazement on Mr. Wilson's face. He turned then and glanced at me.

For an instant between the batting of eyelashes, our eyes met. After that, my eyes darted toward my co-worker, still stirring around hypnotically doing a lot of nothing. So, on we workers worked in the sweltering heat magnified by the brilliant lighting, moving this and that and back again, agitating microscopic dust; and the blades of the ceiling fan crept around and around and around.


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Sandra Ratledge

This site is dedicated to the memory of my mother,
Beulah Cline Nipper, a beautiful product of the Knobs.