“The Clock” a short story

“The Clock” by Sean Boyd

It was one of the great family heirlooms.  Like the jewelry, the grand piano, and all the other objects, the great grandfather clock had climbed the family tree. Occasionally there would be a generation skipped, or the trove of antiquities would spread among the many branches, and sometimes the treasures would coalesce according to some unknowable plan.  Geremy’s generation was one of the rare occurrences when most of the precious items had gathered under one roof.  His grandfather had been the only one of his siblings to have maintained steady employment during the Depression.  As Grandfather’s generation went broke, lost their homes, and moved away to find work, many of the Hopkins family’s most prized possessions ended up in his care.  Some were bought, to supply seed money for family members anxious to start over somewhere else, and others were left for safe-keeping and forgotten.

Of all the heirlooms of the family line one was particularly difficult to say in whose possession it would end up: Insanity.  The Hopkins line was host to a rare disease that reared its head in an unpredictable fashion over the generations.  There had been whole generations that had been passed over and others that had been wasted in totality by the disease.  It tended to strike around the age of thirty, and making forty with intact mental faculties brought a sigh of relief.

Many families that suffered such an affliction might try to bury the fact under a murky cloud of embarrassment, but not the Hopkins.  The family was endowed with a hearty ability to laugh at life’s troubles.  The stories of family members gone mad were handed down right along with the watches, silver sets, pictures, etc., and the disease.  An especially favorite pastime was to regale spouses-to-be with tales of insanity.  Many a Thanksgiving or Easter dinner, where thirty to fifty members would gather, would be spent recounting stories and terrifying the betrothed.

There was an air of pride in the telling.  Those over forty presumed that they had escaped the disease and were all the more happy to tell the tales.  Invariably while merriment was being made around the holiday table, one or two members of the family would be wandering around the house talking to spiders, drooling, or giggling hysterically.  At Grandfather’s house, which Geremy had inherited, there was even a special house built for those so severely incapacitated that they needed to be in a protected environment.  This was cheerily referred to as the Nuthut.

One blessing of the disease was that it didn’t cause the afflicted to become violent or to exhibit any particularly abhorrent behavior.  The Nuthut was a safe zone with non-scalding water, floor drains, no accessible electricity, and surfaces that were easy to clean and maintain.  It was basically child-proofed from top to bottom.  There the affected parties could be fed and kept comfortable and clean with the greatest of ease.  Sometimes the Nuthut was inhabited by more than one family member, but when that was the case they tended either to not notice each other or incorporate themselves into each others delusions.

There were two inhabitants of the Nuthut when Geremy inherited the big house at the end of Hopkins Street.  Aunt Rose and Uncle Henry lived together.  Each peacefully inhabited their own demented world.  They were both of the generation between Grandfather and Geremy and were approaching sixty years old.  Aunt Rose was actually Geremy’s aunt, but Uncle Henry was the son of one of Grandfather’s brothers.  They had both started families before the craziness set in, and they were visited on most weekends.  The disease was so profound that there was no recognition of spouses or offspring, though they were always happy to have visitors.

Uncle Henry’s delusions led him to believe that he was in communication with extraterrestrials.  Every Friday he would begin sending messages.  He would start early in the morning, and request a meeting either that afternoon or the following day.  He couldn’t keep track of the days so all week he would ask if it was Friday.  Once a week when the answer was affirmative he would jump up from the breakfast table and disappear into his room to begin the secret transmissions.  His requests were always satisfied, with his relatives filling the roles of space aliens who shared with him the details of strange worlds.  They came from planets with names like Work, College, City, and so on.  He was deeply interested in the occurrences on these strange worlds.

His method of communication with the aliens was via his pinky finger.  He came home from a dentist visit when he was thirty-two years old convinced that he had been abducted to a space ship of a friendly, extra-terrestrial society.  They had cleverly embedded a communication device in the small finger of their sole contact on Earth — Uncle Henry.  He could appreciate their need for secrecy so even when they visited in the guise of humans he made sure no one else caught on.

During the visits he seemed quite lucid.  He would engage in conversation, taking notes about planet College, while assuring his guests that Aunt Rose was crazy and wouldn’t understand a thing.  For the visitors it was not so strange because, although he was delusional, he showed intense interest in their lives.  The fact that he thought they were aliens rarely came up.  The only time he got excited was when some unknown, like the postman, came by.  Fearing that they might be a spy he told every one to act natural until the intruder was gone.  

Aunt Rose didn’t recognize anyone for who they were.  She was living out her days in a nostalgic time loop of the summer she graduated Brown University.  All her relatives became the members of her social circle during that summer.  Big band was still hot, but was joined by the ecstatic sounds of rock-n-roll and Aunt Rose was a huge fan of it all.  She was an avid dancer.  Holidays and visits for her were sock-hops and dances. Her vigor was impressive and she could dance for hours on end, forever changing partners and carrying on like a debutante at a ball where she was the hostess.  At times she would get everyone dancing, and at others would be satisfied being a part of the only couple on the floor.  Nobody minded her insanity as over the years she ended up teaching everyone to dance, and all in the Hopkins family were accomplished dancers thanks to her.  Foxtrot, swing, waltzes, the jitterbug, she knew them all, and all her relations learned them as well.

The identities she gave people were never permanent.  Sometimes they would last for years, and sometimes they would change every week.  It was always part of the fun to see who was who at Aunt Rose’s parties.  When greeting arrivals she would always get a satisfied smile of recognition and welcome her guests.  Luckily she would always address people by their assumed names during her greeting, and it was easy for the family to pop into character as they all knew well the history she replayed.  She was the DJ for these events and would work through a stack of vinyl every time.  At some point she would announce that she was tired and make a dramatic exit, telling her guests to carry on.  

Geremy was the primary care-giver to the residents of the Nuthut.  Grandfather’s grandfather, who had made a fortune in the early days of the American railroad, had left a trust to support the family homestead and any members of the family who might end up living in the Nuthut.  There was a hired helper who came in five days a week to clean and prepare meals, but Geremy took much of the responsibility upon himself.  He would often take his meals in the Nuthut and spend his evenings with Uncle Henry and Aunt Rose.  Though it had never stopped other members of the family, Geremy had decided to postpone having a family of his own until he was well into his thirties to ensure that he had escaped the hereditary affliction.  He was currently thirty-two years old.

There was no shortage of money in the family and Geremy had paid huge fees to have his family’s DNA mapped in the hopes of finding some genetic defect that might be countered with some mode of medication.  Working with the most knowledgeable doctors in the field they had thus far been unable to isolate anything in particular that would cause the disease.  Taking DNA from all the branches of the family tree and analyzing it had revealed no evidence that the members of the family that had gone insane had anything unique about their genetic structure.  A few experts suggested that theirs was a genetic predisposition for insanity that was randomly triggered by environmental causes.  Geremy saw such claims as solicitations from snake-oil salesmen in search of deep pockets.  He didn’t rule out the idea, but saw it as a search for a needle in a haystack that did not warrant the fees charged by these experts.  

Geremy considered his predicament while he wound the large clock in the foyer where Grandfather had placed it the day his nephew, Uncle Henry, moved into the Nuthut.  It had been in the family for over ten generations.  It had been in Uncle Henry’s possession when he snapped and by default ended up in the big house.  Six feet tall with a mahogany case, it had symbols of the moon and stars that turned around as the hands moved through the hours.  It chimed on the hour, and every four hours played a strange melody that went on for a full three minutes.  The melody was hauntingly beautiful though it was atonal and made use of quarter and half tones, so you couldn’t play it on a piano because some of the notes were in between keys.  The rhythm was also unique.  It was in a strange meter and had a maddening syncopation that was impossible to remember.  After winding the clock, Geremy went to check on his mad relations. 

Walking into the Nuthut one would never know that its inhabitants had long ago let loose their grip on any recognizable reality.  Uncle Henry was writing frantically in his notebook about the previous week’s visitations, and Aunt Rose was knitting in her overstuffed chair.  The sounds coming from the room took Geremy by surprise.  The clicking of the knitting needles approximated the tic-toc of the grandfather clock and Uncle Henry was humming the impossible melody it played five times a day.  They offered a cheery greeting and turned their attention back to the tasks before them.  Geremy sat down and read the day’s newspaper waiting to see if either of them felt like talking.  After an hour’s time he announced that he was turning in and took his leave. 

He walked across the lawn and entered the big house, just as the clock played its strange song at eight o’clock.  He was impressed that Uncle Henry could replicate the tune, but realized that his uncle had lived with the clock for years after his mother Sophie had moved into the Nuthut and left it with him.  He breathed in the air of the old house, and surveyed the treasures that had been handed down for generations.  He felt honored to be responsible for so much family history, but also felt it as a burden.  The house was filled with the past and held little to reflect who Geremy was.  He thought about what he was and what he liked. It felt as if he was trying to hold a pile of sifting sand in his hands.  He looked at his hands and wondered if he was going crazy.  It dawned on him that he wouldn’t know.  Aunt Rose and Uncle Henry didn’t seem to know.

He lay awake that night trying to determine some criteria that would alert him to his going crazy.  He felt sure that he was the master of his mind and in tune with an objective reality, but would he notice it slipping?  Too restless to sleep, he lay staring at the cracks that ran through the old plaster ceiling when the clock struck midnight and played its psychotic rant.  While listening to the last notes he had a new thought: there was something divine about the song that the clock played.

He jumped out of bed and rushed down the stairs to the clock.  He reset the time so the song would play again.  Then again, and again.  Dawn found him stretched out on the floor in his bedclothes with tools and parts of the clock strewn about him.  He had dismantled the workings in order to reassemble them in such a way that it would play the song in an endless loop.  Lying in the pile of discarded gears and wheels, he convulsed in a catatonic fit to the melody playing over and over.  

That is how the woman who was hired to help in the Nuthut found him in the morning.  Filled with concern she called some of family members who rushed over at the news of another Hopkins going crazy.  They sat in the living room discussing the event.  Shock was registered by all because Geremy had seemed so stable just a few days earlier.  He was unable to respond to their questions.  buried in a deep daze, he quaked and jerked in a mild, continuous epileptic fit.  Someone wondered aloud if the clock could be repaired.  Another commented that it would be a shame if it couldn’t be fixed as it had been in the family so long.  Making small talk they traced the clock up the family tree.  Grandfather had received it after Uncle Henry had gone crazy.  Uncle Henry had gotten it from Grandfather’s sister, Sophie, when she had gone crazy.  She had gotten it from her aunt, who had gone crazy.  She had gotten it from her grandmother who had gone crazy.  All at once it dawned in the group that there might be some connection.  Someone asked about Aunt Rose.  Of course she had lived in Grandfather’s house when the clock first arrived.  She was in her late twenties when Uncle Henry checked into the Nuthut, and Grandfather must have escaped the disease because he was already in his sixties.  

Somewhere deep in Geremy’s brain this conversation registered.  Though he couldn’t break the spell he was under he knew that the theory made sense.  The insanity of the family had followed the clock and now he was under its wicked spell.  One of his relatives moved to stop the clock and its incessant performance.  

For a second there was silence. Geremy’s mind cleared.  He jumped up, grabbed a hammer and CRASH! Clang!  Battering hammer strokes shattered the clock.  Everyone stood and watched as Geremy broke the clock into smaller and smaller pieces.  The total destruction took less than five minutes.  Then Geremy passed out.

He woke up in the Nuthut.  Aunt Rose, holding a tray of tea and cookies, entered the room.  She called him by her brother’s name, the one who had fallen off the roof and received a concussion during her endless summer that began so long ago.  

He didn’t mind the name.  In fact he had no preference for another.  As she spoke he interrupted her, He could see the thought ripples.  Couldn’t she see them.  They arrived in concentric circles from every direction.  He was afraid to move his head.  He realized his consciousness was in the perfect center of the universe and knew he should never move again.  He turned out to be the last resident of the Nuthut.