The Twelve Minute Clock
Sharon had little trouble finding the party, what with so many cars parked around the next to last house in the cul-de-sac. Next to a bad-paint-job gray Toyota Camry was a silver BMW. Parked off by itself, as if afraid its paint would get scratched, was an older model dark-red Aston Martin. Her father had had an AM like it, just before one drink too many sent him over a narrow cliff road on a night as dark as this one. There must be at least twenty cars here tonight. A mixed crowd too.
She looked down at Ann’s map with the words “Not the last house!” scrawled as an afterthought. She recalled her friend’s strong admonition to avoid the wrong driveway.
After parking in front of the BMW, she walked past the end house. All the vegetation made it hard to see, as if its occupant wanted nothing to do with the neighborhood. Half way up its dirt driveway was a short white sign with “Do not disturb!” in red. Even the tire ruts looked overgrown as if the house were abandoned.
So dark and dense were the bushes and the knotted and twisted branches of pecan trees that stood beyond them that Sharon wondered if the owner had been a pecan farmer who fell upon hard times, had sold the land around the house, and then had let the ground go to weed.
Ann’s place next door sat back a ways from the street, nestled between two rows of tall, narrow palm trees, the kind that lined so many boulevards in southern California. As the hour was dark, the neatly trimmed trees seemed to stand guard over the boundary between the house and its neighbors. It was the only house on the end of the block with a streetlight to illuminate its driveway. The front door was wide open and light beamed from the interior. A cacophony of party voices escaped.
She ventured in. To her right was a sunken living room, occupied by perhaps a dozen adults, some with white paper plates in their hands filled with party food. All were engaged in conversation. The whole house echoed with the voices of its guests.
“Sharon! So nice to see you could make it.”
She turned to see her old friend Ann, the hostess. Ann’s trademark red hair fell in loose curls on the sides of the mature woman’s face. As she approached, Sharon saw a sliver of white hair on one side. No one knew how old Ann was and she, of course, never told.
The two women shared a hug. Sharon smiled. “I had to break away.”
Ann frowned. “Still working those awful hours? Shame on you! Come. Let me introduce you to George.”
She sighed as she allowed the hostess to pull her by her arm deep into the interior of the house. Ann was always trying to match her up with eligible bachelors, ever since Paul passed away two years ago. To ease her sorrow, Sharon had dived into her work as the Chief Acoustical Engineer on the Segerstrom Auditorium.
Ann led her into the kitchen, packed with people, for Ann was a very popular hostess. Empty bottles of wine stood on the counter. They edged their way past a portly man and a woman who talked while feeding their faces with cheese hors d’ oeuvres. Everyone was talking loudly, but you’d have to, with so many people in the house, half of whom must be speaking at the same time.
“George!" said Ann, "I’d like you to meet Sharon, the engineer I talked about.”
George, it turned out, was also an engineer, but of the software kind. A tall man with long black curly hair, he wore dark rimmed glasses and a Hawaiian shirt that covered his expansive belly.
Sharon chatted with him for a few minutes before he invited her to grab a plate of food. They made their way to the row of tables covered with dishes, bowls, and trays of slices of six different kinds of meats, including fish and shrimp, what looked like a spinach salad, two kinds of beans, and different varieties of chips, dips, nuts, and fruit. One smaller round table held nothing but colorful sweets of all sorts. Ann was also famous for putting on a great spread.
Sharon filled a plate with food and made her way to the pool area out back, where George had told her she could find some beer bottles in a cooler. She selected a John Adams, which a man in a gray Armani suit and pink silk shirt opened in front graciously uncapped for her. From his expensive-looking haircut, she wondered if he drove the red Aston Martin.
As she sat down on an upholstered lawn chair, she faced the last house on the street. A light was on in a room near the back and she could see a small man silhouetted from interior lighting. Bent like an old man, he noticed her and to her surprise raised his fist and shook it.
Several others saw him too and stopped talking. One middle-aged woman in a yellow jumpsuit and red hair said, “Kinda creepy, you know. What does he want? Does he wanna to join us?”
One tall young man in jeans and a jeans jacket, with his blond hair pulled back in a pony tail and a nearly empty beer in his hand, stood facing the house. “He’s been staring at us like that for a long time. Creepy son of a bitch.” He tipped the bottle to his mouth, emptied it, and yelled to the man, “Get a life, you old fart!”
“Leave him alone,” said a gray-haired woman sitting on Sharon’s right.
Sharon studied the occupant of the house, half hidden behind his pecan trees. Despite the man’s displeasure, his posture suggested a very lonely person. When Ann came up, Sharon pointed and asked, “Who is he?”
Ann glanced his way and sighed. “Peterson, I think his name is. Gustav Peterson. Used to be a magician, so I’ve heard. There’s quite a tale going around the neighborhood.” She took a seat beside Sharon and held up a glass of red wine.
Sharon noticed the words “Ann Boswello” in gold letters around the base of the glass, another of Ann’s trademarks.
Sharon touched the glass with her beer. “And?”
Ann sipped her vintage before replying. “Seems he was a magician in his younger days. Traveled all over the world, too. But twenty years or so ago, tragedy struck his family.”
“What happened?” Sharon asked.
“Some say he had been quite a party man himself in his younger days. I’m not sure of the details, but reports are that his act was getting stale and demand for his shows dropped off. He isolated himself in the house and worked night and day to develop a whole new trick, one that he claimed would make him famous around the world.
“Then one day his son up and went missing. They never found him. His wife went crazy and ran screaming through the house every day, wailing for her lost child. One day, she fell silent. No one heard her screams. When they looked for her, she too was gone. The old man would say nothing.
“The police figured she left looking for her son and never came back. She had vanished without a trace.”
“A magician? Then why doesn’t he wave his magic wand and get a life?” added the young man with the pony tail, now standing on Sharon’s left. “And leave us alone. Look at him. He just stands there, staring at us.”
“God, you’d think the old fart hated parties,” said a woman who looked to be in her twenties, dressed in all black, with way too much eye makeup for Sharon’s taste.
“He never comes out. A genuine recluse,” said Ann. “Hates noise too. You’d think someone of his age would be hard of hearing. But whenever we run the lawn mower or run the power saw to trim the trees, he comes to his window with a scowl and shakes his fist at us.
"Rumor has it that he murdered his son and wife and hid their bodies, but of course, the police checked into that and found nothing, nothing at all. Some say loud noises remind him of his wife's screaming.”
Sharon took the last sip from her beer. "I don't know. I think he's just lonely."
“Let’s ignore him,” added the young man in jeans. “He’s probably jealous. We’re having fun and he’s not.”
Sharon couldn’t help but look toward the house again and indeed, the old man, stooped with age, stared back. She decided she needed another beer and got one from the cooler. Feeling a need to think of something besides the old man, she went back inside.
George met her in the hallway and offered her a small plate of baked clams with little pieces of cheese in them. She tried to enjoy the party, but the image of the old man shaking his fist nagged at her.
A half hour later, Sharon came out of the bathroom and wondered why the folks in the living room had become quieter.
In the open doorway stood the old man, wearing a dark brown cloak. Ann came to the door and greeted him. All eyes watched as he opened his cloak to hand her something heavy. So wrinkled was his face that not one part was smooth. So deeply recessed were his eyes that one could surmise he had no eyelids at all. His pale face and hands showed lack of exposure to the sun for far too long.
Everyone in the room stopped talking and stared at him.
“Why, thank you, Mr. Peterson,” said Ann. “Won’t you come join us?”
The old man looked around the room with a scowl. Sharon saw a depth of sadness and loneliness in his eyes that surpassed any she'd ever seen before. Or was it guilt? He turned and, without another word, staggered away slowly into the night.
Ann stood there and then yelled after him, "Thank you!"
Ann's husband Peter came up beside her. "What is it, Ann? What’d he give you?”
She turned and carried the gift, a wood clock, into the living room. Two men helped clear some space on the coffee table in the center of the room and she set the clock down.
Soon, the evening's chatter started up again, but Sharon, ever the engineer, was drawn to the clock and chose a spot on the sofa so she could study it more closely.
Made of stained dark wood, it stood about a foot tall and maybe eighteen inches round. The top part was shaped like the roof of an old European house, with steep sides. The front held a small white clock face. The base beneath the clock face was round, shaped like a cylinder with two rows of very small figures carved into it. What an odd shape for a clock.
The first thing she noticed was that it ran awfully fast. For every sweep of the second hand, the minute hand moved forward one number. But since there was no hour hand, the minute hand would make a complete sweep once every twelve minutes. “The Twelve Minute Clock,” she said.
She marveled at the realistic details of the carvings on the lower cylinder part. She counted twenty carved figures in each row, each figure a man or woman joyfully laughing or dancing. A happy clock. “A nice gift for a party,” she said. Except on the back of the clock, opposite the clock face, was a hooded figure, bent over and leaning on a staff with a curved blade at the end.
Alisa’s banker husband Ralph stopped munching long enough on chips from a paper plate in his hand to add, “Maybe he’s the Tuesday Killer.” Hardly a week had passed since a strangler had last slain a woman in a park, always on a Tuesday.
Sharon often wondered what Alisa saw in her husband. Perhaps it was a case of opposites attract?
“But it’s Saturday,” commented a portly fellow on the sofa whose name Sharon didn’t get.
Ralph replied, “Well, he’s got to live somewhere the other days of the week.”
That started a new game and the dozen people in the living room rivaled each other to come up with the most bizarre story to explain the old man and his unusual gift. But none seemed as enchanting a tale as his being a magician and soon Sharon tired of their banter.
She went downstairs to the billiard room and watched six people play a game of pea pool. Each player selected a red colored pea which had a hidden number on its flat bottom. That number would be his ball and if someone sank his ball, he had to pay to the pot. But if his ball was the last remaining, he would show his pea and collect all the money in the pot.
The pool table was in the center of the room under an old fashioned light fixture that looked like it came from a bar, complete with stickers advertising Budweiser, Miller, and other brands of beer. One young man kept one hand on his cue stick and the other massaging the back of a young woman next to him. Sharon noticed a wedding ring on his hand, so she must be his wife. Or one would hope.
Sharon wanted to play too but had to wait for the next game. Since so many balls remained on the table, she figured this game was young and would take a while. She walked up the back steps to the back yard, but there were only three people there, none of whom she particularly liked, all arguing politics, so she got another beer from the cooler and returned to the kitchen.
Only four people were milling around the food displays. One skinny guy had stains on his hands and Sharon overhead him mentioning a difficult pair of shoes he was working on, so she figured he worked at a shoe repair shop. He was munching on some olives and extolled their benefits for a healthy diet. The lean gal next to him had a bored look on her face and her gaze kept wandering to a well-built man in the doorway to the dining room. Sharon noticed the man’s thick arms and figured he worked out with weights.
She wandered into the living room and nobody was paying attention to the clock, which now had its minute hand on the number six. That reminded Sharon of the old man and she felt drawn to his gift again, so she sat on the sofa in front of it.
She could have sworn all the carved figures were of party people, but now, upon closer examination, she saw that those in the top row were happy but those below were very different.
The first figure on top was of a woman with a large funnel next to her ear. The funnel was pointed to a violin and piano. She chuckled at the caricature of her own occupation as acoustical engineer at the concert hall.
When she examined the carved figures in the bottom row, they all looked sad. I wonder why I hadn’t noticed that before. She decided her memory, long washed by beer, was not up to par tonight.
That led to a more thorough examination of the variety of figures, most of whom seemed to be of people in occupations. One heavy man was seated in front of what looked like a computer, but the expression on his face was quiet serious. He bore a remarkable resemblance to George, the man Ann had introduced her to earlier.
Next to that figure was an artist working on a canvas on an easel. But she had no head. Next to her was a man counting coins on a table, perhaps a banker or a miser, but with the look of a poor man on his face. Another figure was of a man lifting heavy weights while crying.
What an odd gift to give someone!
The party had quieted down a little and the house looked half empty of party guests. Sharon wondered where everyone had gone. Certainly not out back, since she had just come from there. For some reason she couldn’t understand, she recalled the story of the old neighbor and his missing wife and son.
Ann walked into the living room, carrying a white garbage bag into which she stuffed discarded paper plates and cups in them. Sharon called out, “Have you seen George?”
“Kitchen,” was all Ann said.
“But I just came from there and he’s not…” replied Sharon, but Ann seemed to not have heard and was soon out of earshot.
With a glance again at the figure of a man in front of a computer, Sharon decided she needed to quell the growing anxiety in her by locating George, so she returned to the kitchen. But it was empty.
Someone called out from the door to the pool area, “Has anyone seen Ralph?”
Sharon tried to remember what he looked like, but could only remember Alisa had said he was a banker. She looked up, “Have you tried his car?”
She walked outside but there was no one there either. When she returned, there were only four people in the living room, all busy in intense conversations. The house seemed quieter and she asked the woman on her left, “Did Alisa find her husband?”
Four heads turned to her and shook, so she shrugged and went looking for George again. Perhaps he went downstairs to play pool. But when she walked down the steps, there was only the young married man playing billiards by himself. Other than him, the room was empty. She asked, “Where is everybody?”
The pool player paused and shook his head before making his shot.
When she could not find George anywhere, she returned to the living room, where only two people remained, a woman sitting in a man’s lap. The two of them paid her no attention, lost as they were in giving their full, and affectionate, attention to each other.
With a pounding heart, Sharon looked at the figures on the clock. Now the whole bottom row was full of people representing various professions. When she saw one that looked like a female painter, she remembered Alisa and wondered if she and Ralph had decided to go home.
The clock’s minute hand now stood at eleven while the second hand continued its slow race around the face.
It seemed awfully quiet for a party, especially since everybody was having so much fun earlier. She wondered where they all were. Must be outside.
She went out the back door but nobody was there either. “What the…?”
She rushed inside, only to find the kitchen empty. She called out, “Ann?” No answer. A sense of deep concern, bordering on panic, seized her and she searched the whole house, but found no one.
She was alone.
She shivered in the warm night air and rushed into the living room. The lovers were gone too. Stunned, she sat down.
The clock chimed and she glanced at it. The hands were at the top. After six chimes, she noticed movement and saw the last figure change. The background morphed into a writing desk and the figure of a woman sat down at it and took up a pen in hand, before she froze with a look of horror on her face.
Sharon screamed. Something was wrong here! She stood and ran towards the door but stopped when she saw the old man standing there, silhouetted by the street lamp. His deep set eyes stared at her.
When the clock chimed again, his image was replaced by an orchestra, with violin bows moving up and down rapidly and a young man pounding on piano keys. But only silence greeted her ears. The lights dimmed and soon she was alone in the dark, a silent dark. She screamed but could not hear her own voice.