Casey probably wouldn’t have even noticed the gypsy camp except that he was measuring things with his new watch.
See, his father had sent it to him all the way from Germany. It was one of those chronograph watches with four knobs around the rim and different circles of numbers on the face. When you pushed the top right knob the sweep hand started off measuring the seconds, and when you pushed the top right knob again the sweep hand stopped. And you could start it and stop it as many times as you wanted.
So Casey was measuring things. It took five minutes and thirty-seven seconds to get from the steps of his school to out in front of the Esso station, then just 4 seconds to cross the street, then six minutes and fifty-one seconds to the stop sign at the corner of Mrs. Russell’s house, four seconds to cross the street again, then four minutes and five seconds to the flags at the court house.
That’s when Casey got the idea he wouldn’t take the bus back to his grandmother’s as he normally did but walk all the way measuring everything.
Because, see, he’d write down all the times and then he’d know for sure how long it took to get from everywhere to everywhere else.
That’s how he came to see the gypsy camp. He was measuring the time crossing the bridge when he looked out across the old Patterson field and saw it.
Nobody used the field except fishermen along the river. Maybe it had once been the town dump, or something like that. Anyway, the gypsies had moved right into the center of the field near the trees, pulling their pick-up trucks and trailers together in a kind of a circle, the pick-up trucks more on the outside and the trailers more on the inside. From the center of the circle Casey could see white smoke rising into the sky, probably from a campfire.
Casey stopped along the railing of the bridge to look at the camp.
Those people weren’t like himself, he knew. They didn’t have homes, not real homes, not like where he lived now with his grandmother and grandfather ever since his father had gone to Germany. Gypsies didn’t really live anywhere. Not in Addison, not in Essex, not in Shenandoah, not in Clarinda. They moved around, first one place and then another. So yesterday they hadn’t been here. And maybe tomorrow or the next day or the day after that or in a week they wouldn’t be here either.
Standing there on the bridge Casey wondered what it would be like to live that kind of life.
Then he looked down at his watch. He had totally forgotten: The sweep second hand was still running.
At dinner that night, after the maid, Ellen, had cleared the soup and brought in a main dish, Casey announced the different times he’d measured on his way home. He told his grandmother and grandfather it took five minutes and thirty-seven seconds to get from his school to the Esso station, six minutes and fifty-one seconds to the corner at Mrs. Russell’s house and four minutes and five seconds to the court house.
“You know how long it takes to get up the hill on this side of the river?”
“No,” said his grandmother.
“What do you think?”
“I really wouldn’t know, Casey.”
“Three minutes and five seconds.”
“Well, Casey, that’s very interesting.”
“See,” said Casey holding up his watch so that not only his grandmother but his grandfather could see, “you can start and stop the time up here.” He meant the top right knob. “When you start it you don’t have to let it run all the time. You can stop it. And then you can start it again. As many times as you want.”
“That’s very interesting,” said his grandmother.
“It’s got other things it can measure, too. You want to know what they are?”
“Maybe not right now, I think. Perhaps later, Casey.”
“It can measure the speed of sound.”
They ate in silence for a while, just the clock on the wall making a ticking, until his grandmother said, “Arthur, I understand the gypsies are back.”
His grandfather looked up. He never said much at meals. Maybe that’s because he was an important man in town, a judge at the courthouse.
“Yes,” said his grandfather.
“I understand the gypsies are back in town.”
“Yes, I guess they are.”
“They’re not actually renting that field by the bridge, are they?”
“No, I doubt if they are.”
“Of course, they aren’t.”
Casey’s grandfather went back to his eating.
After dinner and after Casey had helped the maid, Ellen, put the dishes away, Casey walked down the hall past the bathroom and knocked on his grandfather’s office door.
“Yes?” he heard his grandfather say from inside his office.
Casey turned the knob on the big oak door, pulled it open and looked to see if it was really all right to go in. His grandfather was sitting at his desk with all those books and papers around him, but he turned his swivel chair halfway toward Casey and reached up and took off his glasses. That meant it was all right.
Casey sat down on the chair where visitors to his grandfather sat.
“Well, Casey?” His grandfather now swung his swivel chair all the way toward Casey and placed his glasses on his desk. “And how are you, Casey? How are things going?”
“Granddad, I saw the gypsy camp. Myself. When I was crossing the bridge.”
“Ah, yes,” said Casey’s grandfather.
“In the old Patterson field right next to the river.”
“They have a campfire going.”
“Do they? Really, Casey?”
“Granddad, where did they come from?”
“Yes, where did they come from?” Casey’s grandfather leaned back in his swivel chair, looked up at the ceiling and touched the golden chain just above his watch pocket. “Yes, Casey, that’s a very good question. Where did they come from? Now, let me see. I think I know this. If I’m correct, if I’m remembering my history accurately, from India, I believe. That is, originally. That is, hundreds of years ago. Probably they first entered Europe during the Middle Ages.”
“I mean yesterday. Where were they yesterday?”
Suddenly Casey’s grandfather started laughing, leaning backwards in his chair and slapping his knee. He did that sometimes, doing the laughing and slapping his knee for no reason at all.
“Sorry, Casey, sorry,” said his grandfather leaning forward in his chair again. “I see what you mean. You mean yesterday. Not the Middle Ages. Yes, yes, where did they come from yesterday?”
“Yes, where did they come from?”
“Well, you see, I’m not sure, Casey. Could have been almost any place, I suppose. But not too far away, I imagine.”
His grandfather reached for his glasses. That meant that he wanted to go back to work.
“Granddad, did you know this watch can measure the speed of sound?”
Casey held his left arm out so his grandfather could see his watch.
“The speed of sound, Casey?”
“The speed of sound. Because, maybe it’s a thunder storm. With lightning. And right when you see the lightning, right when it happens, you push this knob . . .” Casey pointed to the knob at the upper right side of the watch, “. . . and when you hear the thunder, right when you hear the beginning of the thunder, you press it again. And then you can look here . . .” Casey pointed to the second circle of numbers on the dial “. . . and it shows you exactly how far away the lightning was.”
“Do you know how the watch does that?”
“Well, I might know. But I’m not sure, Casey.”
“It’s because light and sound travel at two different speeds. And light’s a lot faster than sound. A lot faster.”
“I guess you’re right, Casey.”
“Granddad, do you know how fast light travels.”
“Not exactly, Casey.”
“One hundred and eighty-six thousand miles per second.”
“One hundred and eighty-six thousand miles per second. Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. We learned that at school.”
The next afternoon Casey decided to walk all the way home again. This way he could double-check how long it took today against how long it took yesterday. To see if everything was the same.
So right when he stepped off the last step at the school he pushed the top right knob on his watch and when he got to the Esso station he pushed it again and saw that it had taken five minutes and 45 seconds.
He thought about that. Yesterday it had taken five minutes and thirty-seven seconds. That meant today, for some reason, it had taken 8 seconds longer.
But why? It was the same distance. Exactly the same distance. So it should have taken exactly the same amount of time. The distances didn’t change from day to day and time didn’t change either. Time was always the same. So today it should have taken five minutes and 37 seconds, or yesterday it should have taken five minutes and 45 seconds.
Although it still took 4 seconds to cross the street. That was the same.
But the rest of it wasn’t. Instead of six minutes and fifty-one seconds to the corner at Mrs. Russell’s house, today it took seven minutes and one second. That was 10 seconds longer. And instead of four minutes and five seconds to the flags at the court house, today it only took three minutes and 58 seconds, which was 7 seconds shorter.
Maybe his watch wasn’t working correctly. Maybe one day it was faster and one day it was slower. That was a possibility. After all, his father had sent the watch to him from Germany and probably the Germans didn’t know how to make very good watches because they’d lost the war and everything.
On the other hand, maybe he hadn’t been careful enough. Maybe, somehow, it was his fault.
So Casey decided the rest of the way home he’d make sure it wasn’t his fault and watch very closely how he measured everything.
So, for example, he waited until he was right at the beginning of the bridge, right beside that post with the traffic sign, to push the upper right knob of the watch.
He was crossing the bridge watching the sweep hand go round when he looked up and saw the gypsy camp with its trailers and the pick-up trucks.
Casey leaned against the railing and looked at the camp and the white smoke rising from the campfire.
Then he suddenly remembered he was supposed to be timing himself crossing the bridge. But he’d thrown all that off. The time on his watch didn’t mean anything any more. So he would have to go back to that traffic post and start the timing all over again.
But for now he just kept looking at the gypsy camp.
What would it be like to really live with them, to be one of them, to stand next to that campfire, to not stay in any one place very long?
He looked back near the traffic post and saw the dirt track which curved down from the bridge and then split, one branch going to where the pick-up trucks and trailers were, and the other branch leading to the bushes and trees at the bank of the river.
He had enough time, he thought. He really didn’t have to be at his grandmother’s until later on.
So he walked back to the beginning of the bridge near the traffic post. But he didn’t start to measure time again but instead followed the dirt track as it curved downwards.
When he came to the place where one branch went one way and the other the other way, he chose the branch that led to the bushes and trees near the river. He sure wasn’t going to take that one which went right into the gypsy camp.
When he got to the bushes the track started splitting up, turning into lots of different little trails and going into the trees.
Casey didn’t know which of the trails to take. So he just chose one of them.
Except that this trail led right into the brambles, and the brambles got thicker and thicker until there didn’t seem to be any way through at all.
Probably, Casey thought, it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to head back. Because, after all, it was important that he start measuring things again so that later he could write everything down and know all the times.
Except just then Casey heard a noise in front of him, some kind of bird, or birds, maybe. A clucking. Pheasants? Quail? Probably quail. A bevy of quail. “Bevy.” That was a word he had learned at school. That meant, a group of quail.
He decided to see if he could find the quail and started to push through the brambles even though there wasn’t a path.
They had seen him before he had seen them, a mother and daughter sitting in a clearing. Well, the mother was sitting and the daughter, six or seven years old, was standing on the other side of a little pen. Inside the pen Casey saw maybe six chickens scratching and pecking at the earth. They were the birds making the clucking noise.
“Cat got your tongue, kid?”
It was the way she was dressed, the mother - not like any of the mothers Casey knew - the long black skirt and a black shawl over her red blouse and the black scarf on her head. And the jewelry, big silver bracelets hanging from her arm. The daughter wasn’t dressed like any of the girls Casey knew at school, either. She wore a dress, for one thing, but the dress wasn’t ironed and it just fell straight down her body and didn’t even have a belt and was short, stopping above her knees. She was looking right at Casey from across the pen.
“You come to buy a chicken, boy?” said the mother.
“I think . . . ,” said Casey looking at his watch and remembering that he was supposed to be measuring everything.
“Now, boy, what you got there?
The mother got up from her chair and came over toward Casey.
Casey knew that now was the time to start back. But for some reason he didn’t even take a step.
“Oooooh, what a lovely thing,” said the mother reaching out and touching Casey’s arm just above his watch.
Casey pulled his arm away.
“My father gave it to me.”
“Did he? For your birthday? Is that what your father did? Give you this pretty thing for your birthday?”
She took hold of Casey’s wrist again and somehow got her fingers under the strap of his watch.
“Such a pretty thing. In all my life I’ve never seen such a pretty thing as this.”
She loosened the watch off Casey’s wrist and held it in her hands.
“Oh, my, my, my! Look at this, Rema! All these buttons. Well, this ain’t no kind of ordinary watch. Kid, you are some lucky boy to come to a watch like this.”
“It’s chronograph,” said Casey.
“A ‘chronograph!’ Well, that’s what I thought.”
“You can measure things with it.”
The mother handed the watch over to her daughter. The daughter took it and looked at it.
“And what else, boy?”
“Anything else? Maybe in your pocket?”
Casey looked over at the daughter but didn’t see where she had put his watch.
“You got anything in one of your pockets, boy? I’ll bet you got something interesting in one of those pockets. Something maybe you want to show me.”
“Could I have my watch, please?”
“Your watch? You want your watch?”
The mother turned toward the daughter. “Rema, you give this boy his watch. You do that now.”
The girl just looked at her mother.
“Rema, you listen to me. Give this boy his watch.”
Suddenly the girl turned and ran through the brambles into some trees.
“Well, well, well,” said the mother looking after the girl. “Well, well, well.”
She went back over to her chair next to the pen and sat down.
“Kid, you ain’t interested in no chickens.”
The woman spit on the ground, then looked up right at Casey.
“Boy, you got anything else interesting?”
As soon as Casey got home he told his grandmother all about it, the way the gypsy woman and her daughter had taken his watch.
“Well, I declare,” said his grandmother. “Would you believe it? Taking such a thing? I declare. Well, we’ll just see about this. We’ll just see.”
She went over to the crank phone in the kitchen.
“Casey, you’re telling me the truth?”
“This really happened? You’re not making it up? You didn’t just lose the watch somewhere? If you did, tell me now. Because I’m calling the police, Casey. The police will come, Casey, and you’ll have to tell them. So it has to be the truth.”
“It’s the truth.”
“I thought so. Those horrible people. Those horrible, horrible people.”
She turned the crank, asked the operator to connect her to the police, waited, and then told someone she was Judge Robert’s wife and could they send someone out, the sooner the better. “Yes, yes, that’s fine,” Casey heard his grandmother say, and she put down the receiver.
“Now, Casey, when the man comes, you tell him everything.”
About five minutes later a police car came up the driveway and a policeman with a big belly and a red face got out. Casey recognized the man as Chief Bowles. Sometimes in the evening he came out and sat in his grandfather’s office with his grandfather.
“Good afternoon, Ma’am,” said Chief Bowles taking off his cap at the front door. He was already breathing hard even though he had only walked from the car.
“You come in, John,” said Casey’s grandmother. “Right this way.”
They all sat down in the living room, Chief Bowles sitting down slowly. Casey’s grandmother explained everything Casey had told her and then she got Casey to explain everything again.
“So they got your watch, did they?” Chief Bowles said.
“Those horrible, horrible people,” said Casey’s grandmother. “And his father sent the boy that watch all the way from Germany.”
“One watch,” said Chief Bowles. He took a little spiral ringed notebook out of his breast pocket, opened it and wrote something. His stomach was so big that it stretched the buttons on his police shirt and Casey could see his white T-shirt in the space between the buttons.
“So are we going to let these people get away with this?” said Casey’s grandmother. “People of that sort?”
Chief Bowles finished writing in his little notebook. “One watch,” he said, closing the notebook and sliding it into a breast pocket. He also had three or four pens sticking out of that pocket.
“They don’t pay rent on that field, you know,” said Casey’s grandmother. “I’m sure they don’t. They just come and take it. That’s how they are.”
“Ma’am, I’ll tell you what I think. I think it might be best if I took a little trip down there and had a talk with these folks. Pay them a visit.”
“An excellent idea, John. An excellent idea.”
“Yes, Ma’am. And, Ma’am - with your permission, Ma’am - can I borrow your grandson here? Take him with me.”
“Anything that will help, John. Casey, you’ll go with Chief Bowles, won’t you?”
“Yes,” said Casey.
“And, Ma’am,” said Chief Bowles sliding himself out of his chair, “maybe it would be best if I gave the judge a ring. To let him know, ma’am.”
“Well, certainly, John. Yes, why not? The phone’s in the kitchen.”
Casey thought that as soon as they got out of the driveway Chief Bowles would turn on the siren and then all the other cars would have to pull over to the side of the road to let them pass. But Chief Bowles didn’t turn on the siren and he didn’t drive fast at all. He just drove at the same speed as other cars and stopped at all the stop signs and also at the traffic light at the bridge. And he didn’t turn into the old Patterson field on the little dirt track at end of the bridge either, but kept on going toward the middle of Addison until he came to the court house.
Casey’s grandfather was standing on the sidewalk and Chief Bowles pulled the police car up to the curb.
“Now, son,” said Chief Bowles, “I guess you can sit in the back. Let the judge sit up here.”
Casey got out and went around to the back seat. His grandfather got in front with Chief Bowles.
“Now young man,” said Chief Bowles, “before we get going I want you to tell the judge everything that you told me.”
“So, Casey?” said Casey’s grandfather turning in his seat and looking back at Casey.
Casey told the whole story again, about how he’d been walking along next to the river, how he’d heard the clucking of the chickens, the woman and her daughter, the mother taking his watch off his wrist, her giving it to her daughter, and how the daughter had run away.
“Oh, boy!” said Chief Bowles. “Oh boy, boy, boy.”
“So?” said Casey’s grandfather to Chief Bowles.
“So?” said Chief Bowles. “You’re the doctor, Judge.”
“Well, we can give it a try.”
Again Chief Bowles didn’t turn on the siren, and again they drove along at the same normal speed as the other cars on the street and the other cars didn’t pull over to let them pass. When they got to the bridge Chief Bowles turned off on the little dirt track, the police car bumping up and down, and he followed the track that led toward the center of the field, not the track that led over to the river. When he got to some trees he stopped.
“Now I think it’s best if the two of you wait here,” said Chief Bowles opening his door and sliding out of his seat.”
“Or shall I, John?” said Casey’s grandfather.
“I guess I know them guys pretty well,” said Chief Bowles. “Over the years.”
Casey watched Chief Bowles walk down the track between the trees. He was so fat that he waddled as he walked.
“Well, Casey,” said Casey’s grandfather, “you decided you’d give these people a visit, did you?”
“I was walking home,” said Casey.
“Walking home? On this side of the river?”
“I was measuring things.”
Suddenly Casey’s grandfather started laughing. Again, over nothing.
Then Casey saw Chief Bowles coming toward them out of the trees walking with another man. The other man was also fat and waddled in the same way as Chief Bowles waddled. Only where Chief Bowles had a red face, this man had tanned skin and black hair. He wore a suit, only the jacket part of the suit didn’t match the pants part of the suit, and he didn’t wear a regular shirt under the suit jacket but a green T-shirt.
As soon as this man saw the police car he started walking faster toward the side of the car where Casey’s grandfather sat.
“Ah, my friend, my very good friend, and how is my very good friend,” said the man reaching in through the window with both of his hands and putting them on Casey’s grandfather’s shoulders. “It is so very nice, so very, very pleasurable to see you again, a real honor for me.”
“My pleasure,” said Casey’s grandfather.
“It is so, so long since I’ve seen you. How long has it been? A very long time, I think.”
Then the man noticed Casey in the back seat. “And this is the small one, is it? The sonny boy.” The man reached back and pinched Casey’s cheek with his fingers.
Casey pulled back. No one ever in his life before had pinched his cheek.
“My grandson,” said Casey’s grandfather opening the door and getting out of the car. Then he leaned back in.
“Casey, you stay here.”
The three men, Casey’s grandfather, Chief Bowles, and the tanned-faced man walked together away from the car and stopped under one of the trees. The tanned-faced man seemed to be do most of the talking, moving his hands up and down in the air as he talked. The men were far enough away that Casey couldn’t hear what they were saying.
Suddenly Casey saw his grandfather start to laugh, even slapping his knee, and the other two men laughed, too. Casey didn’t know what was so funny. He thought he was supposed to get his watch back.
The tanned-faced man talked some more, waving his hands around, and then the three of them came back toward the car.
“There’s my little sonny boy,” said the tanned-faced man reaching in the window to pinch Casey’s cheek again. But Casey pulled back and wouldn’t let him do it. “No?”
Then the man turned to Casey’s grandfather.
“My dear friend, it’s the least I can do. It is the very least I can do.”
The tanned-faced man shook Casey’s grandfather’s hand, then he shook Chief Bowles’ hand, then he said goodbye, then he shook Casey’s grandfather’s hand again, and then he said goodbye again.
When he was finally gone, waddling down the track into the trees, both Chief Bowles and Casey’s grandfather got back in the police car.
“Now we wait,” said Chief Bowles.
“And?” said Casey’s grandfather.
For a while no one said anything although the whole time Casey could hear Chief Bowles’ breathing. Then Casey’s grandfather said, “Think it will rain?”
“Maybe,” said Chief Bowles.
“It might,” said Casey’s grandfather.
They waited some more and then a small boy appeared out of the trees. He walked toward the police car holding something in his hand. When he got closer Casey saw this thing in his hand looked like a watch.
The little boy came right up to Chief Bowles’ side of the car and handed what he was carrying to Chief Bowles. The chief swung it back to Casey. “Your watch.”
It was. It was his watch. The one with all the knobs.
“I’ll be damned,” said Casey’s grandfather.
As the chief turned the police car to start back, Casey pressed the upper right hand knob of the watch. See, that’s how you started the sweep hand. With the upper right hand knob. That’s how you stopped it, too. Because that’s how you measured things. First he’d time it from here to the bridge, and then from the bridge up the hill, and then from the top of the hill to Lynnwood, and then along Lynnwood all the way to his grandmother’s house. And he’d write all that down. Keep a record. Because, see, these distances were always the same. And time didn’t change, either. Nothing changed. So if he kept a record day after day pretty soon he’s know all the measurements from everywhere to everywhere.