By Joel Howard
The clock was of an ornate design, its wooden case carved in delicate lines, the face adorned with filigrees and hands of rich gold. Upon seeing it, one was struck by its overall demeanor, captivated by its great presence and obvious craftmanship. It anchored the living room, where it stood tall against the far wall. Up close, the Roman numerals showed their delicacy, as did the fine ends of the serifed hands. The pendulum below swung slowly, its weight arcing in short paths as it inched forward the two hands on their endless mission of devouring the future. Every minute was a crumb, and not one was left uneaten.
“Never, ever touch the clock. It is a family heirloom. Of immense value is the clock.”
Facing the clock was a crème colored sofa, its simplicity of monotone fabric and clean edges in direct contrast to the grandfather clock. Centered on the middle cushion of the sofa was perched a small boy. In appearance, he, too, was clean and crisp, his khaki pants and white shirt leaving him to blend into the background to a point of near invisibility. He sat erect as a traffic pole, as still as one as well. Except, that is, for his feet, which were clad only in beige socks.
“No shoes on the carpeted areas of the home.”
He held the heel of each foot in place while continuously scrunching all ten toes back and forth, in and out, allowing them to extend outward to their fullest length before once again curling them under so tight as to appear painful. His face betrayed any pain, though, and his eyes, cast upward at a seventy-five degree angle, remained locked on the face of the clock.
Underfoot was a snowy expanse of plush carpet, its thick nap fully upright everywhere except where the slight footprints of the boy gave evidence of his recent trespass. These few indentations were shallow, the boy’s weight slight for his age of ten. They also were less frequent than one would expect, the boy having minimized the depressions by taking the longest strides his short stature would allow. He had, in fact, almost fallen sideways on two occasions, the exaggerated steps causing him to teeter perilously on his small feet.
Always echoing in the boy’s ears was the sound of the clock’s movement. Neither the fabric of the furniture nor the sea of carpet could soften a single tick, bury even one tock, of the giant against the wall. The timepiece remained insistent, the noise coalescing into a swarm of bees, the sound like the sibilant taunts of a bully’s lips held close to his ear.
His eyes held both hands of grandfather in unerring focus as the afternoon slowly gave way to evening’s pressure. Mindful of his current situation, he struggled mightily to recall what sin he had committed. His father had simply instructed him to wait for him in the living room.
“I’ll be there at five o’clock sharp. We’ll have us a chat.”
For a moment the boy’s eyes fluttered aimlessly, up and down in their sockets, the stress having claimed them and insisting they for one moment not focus on grandfather’s hands. Marshalling his attention, the boy managed to again center his vision on the two hands.
He strained to focus his hearing on any approaching footsteps, a task made more difficult as his father would have put on slippers upon entering through the garage door and into the mud room. The whoosh-swish of the soft material would be heard only when the man was upon the living room, providing scant warning of his arrival.
It doesn’t matter, the boy thought to himself.
“He’ll be here one way or the other”, he heard himself murmur. He clenched the cheeks of his butt as he again scrunched his toes. The thought of his father’s favorite means of punishment, an old and worn razor strop lashed against his bare backside, caused an unwelcome warmth to course through his body.
The child couldn’t recall any recent sins. He’d not broken anything, nor had he been in trouble at school. His meals had all been eaten, his salutations of “ma’am” and “sir” had been diligently and appropriately applied. There’d been no mud tracked indoors, nor any incident of sassing his parents.
From the adjacent foyer, a faint yet strident swish-whoosh came. The time had arrived, ‘the hour of reckoning’, as his father often said. As the sound of forward movement ceased, the paneled pocket doors that led from the foyer began to further part. As the boy held his breath like a giant tumor in his chest, the shrill sound of a telephone rang out. The sliding of the two doors abruptly stopped. The faint footsteps of slippers resumed, this time moving away. The boy felt certain this signaled his father having retreated to the telephone in the kitchen.
Grandfather suddenly boomed his presence, causing the boy to jump up and onto his curled toes, the pain sending him lurching forward onto the floor. He grimaced as he again set about taking breaths, this time in short gulps, each one in harmony with the five peals of grandfather’s announcement. Opening his eyes, he studied the windows that looked out over the front lawn. From his odd vantage point, the winter-bare trees looked taller, more imposing in their skeletal relief against the sky. Beyond them, the sun sat contentedly, its orange glow chafing the edge of one swollen, aimless gray cloud.