My work demands the completion of many unpleasant tasks, but the most unpleasant are these quarterly visits to my grandfather. As the one who’d gotten him committed to the institution, and was now the executor of his considerable estate, it was unavoidable. Doing it wasn’t easy. He’d always been a sly character, according to the information I’d been able to gather. There was some concern he might prove himself mentally competent in court, and continue to manage his own affairs. So I’d put a great deal of effort into putting him away. The taking of his estate was complicated, and despite now having full control of it, there were still legalities that required his signature and consent.
That’s why I endured these visits. I had contracts and waivers in my briefcase right now.
A half hour of feigned concern, the endurance of a few snide remarks and reprimands, and I’ll have what I need, and be on my way back to the real world.
The last time I was here I saw a white-haired zombie, out for a tour with her walker. As she walked, a slow dribbling of diarrhea fell from under her nightgown, leaving a trail on the linoleum floor.
I’ve no respect for these ‘elders.’ Anything they did in life that might deserve some respect, they’ve forgotten. The person who accomplished anything in life is gone. What we are seeing is the deflated afterbirth, of that person.
And what respect does that deserve?
My grandfather was in his room, alive, sitting up with his legs over the side of the bed. I will say this for him: before he became almost entirely bedridden, he’d decorated his room far more interestingly than the others. There were no Hummel children or plaques from companies that went out of business decades ago. The room had some paintings, crude, I thought, but boldly colored. My grandfather had an embarrassing interest in magic and the occult, and that interest was reflected in the paintings. I’d found the whole occult thing clownish and embarrassing, even as a boy. But my mother said he was serious about it. She hardly knew the man, herself. He’d abandoned her and her mother when she was a child. At one point he resurfaced, but remained a vague and inconsistent presence throughout her adulthood, and my childhood.
He taste in art, though, must have been good. I’d made a lot of money selling off his collection.
I didn’t get the usual reception. The old man greeted me, even called me by name. He was sitting up with his legs over the side of the bed, facing the door. He was in pajamas and a worn-out robe that may have been nice at one time. “Hello, Grandfather,” I said.
We were off to a sunnier start than usual.
He looked bad. He looked like the light from the bedside lamp would crush him if it fell on him too hard. I sat down in the chair next to the bed. Just far enough away that I could almost avoid his stale breath, but close enough to create an illusion of concern.
He’d noticed the briefcase as soon as I’d walked in.
So I got right to it. “Grandfather, I have some papers I’d like you to sign. Formalities, really. But having your signature will allow me to wrap up some of your unresolved affairs.”
I expected an argument. I’d ask for something like this every time I was there. He always made me jump through hoops before I got what I wanted, but I always prevailed. As an attorney, my job is getting people to sign things more in my interest than theirs.
The old man surprised me. “I’ll sign whatever you want,” he said. His voice was weak but he spoke in a clear focused manner. “But first, I want you to do something for me with me. Call it a last request.”
“What is it, Grandfather?”
“I’m going to die soon,” he said. “Any day now. When you get old, you’re always tired. But when you’re about to die, it’s like the tiredness itself gets tired. Then you know your time is almost up.”
Not a bad turn of phrase, I thought. I’d heard something about him being some sort of writer in the Fifties. As for dying, he couldn’t do it soon enough for me.
“I never liked you,” he stated. “You were a petulant, gassy child. Intelligent, maybe, but mean-spirited.” I said nothing to contradict him. He wasn’t wrong.
“You were sneaky, then and now.”
“I shouldn’t have been put here. I’ve always suspected you paid that psychiatrist for her recommendation. This place. We lie in our beds here like urine-soaked bones.”
“Grandfather –“. He raised his hand.
“No matter,” he said. “It’s late in the day, and like it or not, we’re family.”
(He was wrong. I never paid the psychiatrist. The psychiatrist had written a pop psychology book she wasn’t able to sell. I was sleeping with one of the best literary agents on the coast, and I made the shrink aware of that. She’s on talk shows now.)
My Grandfather continued. “I want to show you something. A prized possession of mine.”
“Alright. Of course.”
It was an old clock, the kind that would have sat on a fireplace mantel. Now it sat on a shelf at the foot of his bed. The clock rose up in the middle, then sloped down again at the sides. There were some ornamental flourishes, but nothing remarkable. The only distinctive thing I could see about it was its round face. It was a deep, rose red. It was the kind of thing you’d find in a thrift store. Unimpressive, for a “prized possession.”
“You’re thinking it doesn’t look like much,” the old man said, standing up with a great deal of effort. How many decades did it take him to walk from the side of the bed to the shelf? Finally he stood in front of the clock, breathing hard. “But, it’s a special clock, without question.”
I made a vague hmm to appease him. I stood, walked to the shelf, and pretended to inspect the clock with greater interest. Actually, I did notice more things about it from this close. Some childish vandalism or ill-advised attempt at embellishment had resulted in a number of scratches in the wood. Weird shapes and symbols, carved clumsily into the brown wood.
“So … is it a magic clock?” I said, instantly regretting the unmistakable note of sarcasm.
From across the room, I thought the face of the clock was tinted glass. It was not. The color was owed to the space between the clock face and the glass being filled with a rose-colored liquid. The clock hands did their rotation inside the salmon-colored substance.
The second detail was a small twist of metal at the directly beneath the clock face – what I had thought to be the key with which one wound wind the clock. It was, in fact, a tiny, dark metal faucet.
“I see. The clock is filled with wine,” I said. “The clock is used to hide wine from the nurses?”
“Hide something from them? I could grow wings and they wouldn’t notice. The liquid behind the glass is wine, but it’s more than that. It’s my life. Literally, my life. I found this clock when I was in my twenties. It was empty when I bought it. As soon as I took it home, though, it filled up, to about the quarter mark. After that, it continued filling, but more slowly, in increments much harder to see. Look. The wine is almost to the top now. You could barely slide a hair between the wine, and the top of the glass. I will die soon. A drop more and my life will be over.”
He really was crazy. I’d wasted my time, getting my girlfriend to sell that book.
He regarded his prized possession and added: “An ordinary clock tells you how much time has passed. But this one tells you how much time you have left. Not everyone would like to know. But I’ve watched the clock fill up over the years with interest, not fear. I think it’s rather beautiful, watching the hours pass like a filling glass, rather than the invisible passing of minutes.”
I’ve no wish to go on living. My youthful love for life was unrequited, and it faded quickly. If drinking this wine would refill me with all my fermented years, I assure you, I wouldn’t drink it. No. On the other hand, I didn’t love my life, but I never hated it, either. It was interesting, exciting even, at times. I want to revisit it, briefly, now. As one might revisit a familiar painting a last time, and enjoy it, no matter how mundane the painter’s motivations, what sorrows it might portray, or how disappointing its final sum.”
“You did steal my life from me. But my lack of love for it allows me to forgive you, and ask you to join me in a toast to its passing.”
I studied the red liquid behind the glass, unsure of what to say. Naturally, I didn’t believe a word of it. Wine of life, ticking clock of mortality. It sounded trite to me.
“After we drink,” he reminded, “I’ll sign your papers.”
Grandfather opened a wooden box on the shelf beside the clock. In it were two small wine glasses.
He placed the first glass under the spigot. With a shaking finger he held down the release, and the wine poured out and filled it. The liquid slid downward, the resurfaced clock face bone-white above it. He handed me the glass then filled his own. The wine in the clock bottomed out.
Of course it occurred to me that Grandfather was trying to poison me. He could have been pretending to take his meds, instead crushing and collecting them into a lethal powder. Or, he could have pilfered detergent from the Institution’s utility room. But the man had barely been barely able to walk for years. I simply couldn’t imagine him having the physical or mental capacity to pull off the logistics of such a plan. He had coerced someone on staff to sneak him in a bottle of wine, and he had been able to fill his novelty store clock with it.
The wine was not poison. He was trying to trick me, or trick the both of us.
He lifted his glass as high as he could with his skinny arm, and I lifted mine. I would play along.
“We drink to Life!” my grandfather said, and we drank.
After that, he signed the papers. And died the next morning.
When the package arrived, I knew exactly what it was. The damned clock. My grandfather had enlisted the aid of one of the nurses to have it delivered to me, after his death. I am sorry now that I ever unwrapped it, as I am sorry that I joined him in his bizarre toast. The clock was in there, and the wooden box, but in it there was only one wine glass. There was a quarter inch of red liquid at the bottom of the clock’s face. Strange, I thought, I had seen the old man drain it. It had been a very long day. I left the clock on the dining room table and would put it in the trash in the morning. But in truth what spared the clock was the chill that ran through me when I considered destroying it.
It’s nothing, I told myself. It can sit on the table till tomorrow.
The next morning, the wine had risen. Yes, it gave me a start. The wine was almost up the center where the minute and hour hands were joined. I got the implication. But I was supposed to, wasn’t I? My dead grandfather was still trying to trick me. He hadn’t ‘forgiven’ me at all. I was supposed to be frightened by this, by seeing the quickly rising red liquid of my life.
I’ll take it apart, I decided. Expose the thing for what it is. I expected to find a hidden decanter, a mechanized pump, and some sort of timer inside. But there were only the gears and springs of an ordinary clock. There was no hidden wine. And what powered the thing? There was no key with which to wind it, no battery, and no cord to plug it into the wall. But the arrow shaped hands continued their rotation. The discovery left my insides cold, and with trembling hands I sealed the clock up again, in an almost servile manner.
It was then that the clock had me. I was filled with an irrational dread, especially when I thought of getting rid of the thing. And the wine continued to rise, quickly.
I put it away in the study, which I rarely visit. But in the last few weeks, I’ve been unable to resist checking in on it, every day at first, but now, much more than that.
When it hit the halfway point, I even ‘reasoned’ that it was merely catching up to the years I had lived, as the old man had said it had done with him. But the wine continued to rise. I even found myself marking its progression in small lines on the glass.
I tell myself the whole thing — his little speech about the clock, and the toast, and the delivery of the clock to me after his death –was all a set-up. Wasn’t it? He thought the clock would get under my skin, that I’d be taken in by his admittedly impressive magic trick, that it would grab my attention and eat away at me, as I watched the clock fill up with wine. That I’d imagine that drinking the toast would him had bound me to the clock, somehow, and that it was my life oozing up, as wine, behind the glass.
A month has passed, and the wine is at the three quarters mark. At this rate, I’ll be dead in a very short time. I’m only forty. I wonder, madly, what will cause it. A heart attack? My doctor wouldn’t be surprised. A car accident? I’ve grown so anxious about driving that I haven’t used my car for weeks. Maybe an ex-client has made plans to murder me. I’ve made plenty of enemies. I check the clock a hundred times a day. I know its crazy. But that’s what the clock was meant to do, drive me crazy.
I sit now in my study, wild-eyed and unshaven, the clock and the single wine glass on the table before me. My grandfather had guessed I’d be alone and friendless at the end. I don’t leave the house anymore. I will go him one better than that though: there will be no toast at all. Toast to what? The clock has taught me that the whole thing was need, without satisfaction; desire, without passion; a constant hunger for meals that, however lavish, proved tasteless and unrewarding once eaten.
The room is shrinking around me. My breathing is labored, and a great weight is bearing down on my chest. Heart attack — told you.
I watch my hand reach out to the tiny lever above the clock’s spout. I press it down, and watch the wine flow out onto the floor.