Mechanical motion comforted the Sire, the rise and fall of the arm of a toy steam engine, the piston driving the turn of a cast-iron wheel. The rhythm of a saw, the rotation of a drill, the dervish whirl of a wood-turning lathe, these he approved. The sway of windshield wipers cleared his view of a storm-ridden world. He liked the tick of a clock as it parceled seconds and minutes of equal time, or the swing of a pendulum in a tall case clock, its period constant despite the confusion of daily life, the elastic tug of desires like vectors pulling in all directions.
We adult children saw the grumpy old man as the engineer he insisted he was. We believed the Sire lacked so much as a shred of imagination. We knew him to be a pedantic fool devoid of romance. For years, we heard him sound off on politics and current events. How cut and dried his opinions were, like shriveled bits of orange peel, brown husks instead of fruit.
After he bailed the corporation for early retirement, he designed and built the ancestral hall on forty acres of second-growth forest. We visited on a holiday. The modest size of the house in the woods, with a cast-iron stove and a little wood deck, suggested a miser, grasping the freshly minted gold coins he bought by mail. We were in for a shock.
He smiled and relaxed. The Sire was genial! He no longer drove to the barbershop for a weekly crewcut, clipped to precise geometrical shape like a privet hedge. His hair turned white, and he brushed it back in a sweep. With those splendid teeth that had never known decay, he ate candy incessantly. He kept up with gossip.
He played with the dog, a sweet silent beagle, a furry friend who was always there. They went for walks in the wild greenwood, boon companions side by side. The Sire carried a staff, a long straight stick stripped of leaves that he waved in the air. Thus did he clear his path of threads of spider silk that hung invisible from the trees. He looked like a wizard performing a spell with a magic wand.
In the basement of the ancestral hall, dry, with windows on the downhill side, were a furnace, a well-water pressure tank, and a hot water tank—red and white and apple green cylinders tied to pipes and flues and ducts, like the bowels of a steamship, or the bodily organs of a robot whale. In the basement were shelves of gray-painted steel, cold storage for his abandoned hobbies, boxes of erstwhile household gear, spare parts for machines and appliances, vacuum tubes for old radios, light bulbs and multi-prong plugs that were no longer manufactured.
Here also were boxes of toys and games, jigsaw puzzles, chemistry sets, scale models of airplanes, ships and artillery, some of them never completely assembled, relics of childhood we had forgotten, yet here they lay in ambush. We adult children stood paralyzed, uncertain whether to fight or flee. Nostalgia overcame us with ease, like the leak of a colorless, odorless gas.
In this subterranean realm of cinderblock, drains, columns, and dusty concrete, the Sire decreed a laboratory, a scientific research center for a staff of one, a place devoted to the austere pursuit of regularity, of knowledge no one could undermine, least of all the Consort. She would practice the domestic arts of housekeeping, cooking, washing and drying directly overhead, in the kitchen that was her bailiwick.
The Sire pursued his passion for clocks. The basement laboratory teemed with clocks of every description, electrical and wind-up, clocks that ticked and hummed and chimed on the hour and every quarter hour. He loved their complex guts concealed in polished wooden cabinets, the gears and ratchets behind smooth faces. One clock, linked to the Naval Observatory in the nation’s capital of Washington, gave the most patriotic time, the official standard to rule all others, displayed as a digital readout, a blue-green number that glowed on high. Another clock, from a boat that prowled Long Island Sound to intercept rum smugglers during Prohibition, rang sailors’ duty watches as ship’s bells. The din of a dozen clocks striking at once—they were rigorously synchronized—bothered the Sire not a whit. He was growing deaf, he said. We would have to speak up. Enunciate. A member of the Horological Society, the Clock Fanciers’ Guild, Timekeepers Unlimited, the Chronometric Association, and more recondite and fraternal groups, the Sire subscribed to and wrote articles for magazines that arrived by mail. He corresponded with fellow enthusiasts—they called themselves clock nuts—located all over the world in post-industrial English-speaking countries. Copies of these magazines, journals, quarterlies, and annual reports of conferences competed for shelf space with reference books, antique guides, and histories of the invention and improvement of clocks, going back to ancient China and Mesopotamia. File cabinets overflowed with clippings and reprints, carefully organized in manila folders and labeled in a system only he understood.
The Sire chose as his object of study the pendulum. He constructed apparatus, ever more precise, to test a range of materials—brass, aluminum, ceramics, glass, and semiprecious stone. An armature of struts and braces, bolts and pins and adjustable screws, with wires and gauges like a net of nerves monitored the action over days and months which stretched into years. He designed and made electrical devices to suit his specialized purposes. He drew circuit diagrams in colored ink, a secret code of straight lines, squiggles, numbers and symbols to notate input, output, resistance, diodes, transistors, gates, modulation, regeneration, and for all we knew, transubstantiation.
He mounted these diagrams on the basement walls. Whether he meant to hide the bare masonry, or he liked the overall decorative effect, or he wanted the display for easy reference, this unique wallpaper lent the air of an ancient tomb painted with Egyptian hieroglyphics, a reminder to the dead inmate of life above ground, or an illustrated guide to what the soul will encounter on the journey to the afterlife.
More than the pendulum swinging to and fro, hypnotic enough, these murals held our gaze. The arcane images told a story, one we could not read. They expounded a mystery to which we lacked a clue. Arms folded over concave chests, we stood in the basement and squinted. Our eyes swam. We tore them away at last to stagger upstairs to the living world. The Consort, mixing batter in a bowl, wondered where we had been all this time.
To the limit imposed by the physical properties of the materials it was made of, the pendulum achieved an acute sensitivity. In this iteration, the pendulum detected perturbations of gravity, the distortion of the earth’s crust caused by its rotation, the tidal pull of the moon which waxes and wanes in the course of its elliptical orbit, industrial blasts and distant tremors, the rumble of heavy trucks on the roadway, and the slam of a door in the house above.
Paying no heed to the Consort who slumbered in peace at his flank, the Sire got up in the middle of the night to check on the pendulum. He set an alarm clock on his side of the bed to remind him to take a periodic reading. Dressed in slippers and a full-length nightshirt, a white unbelted gown that resembled the garb of an Arabian sheik, he threw on a satin jacket ablaze with the name of a volunteer fire squad, in the style of a smart pelisse draped over the shoulder of a Hungarian hussar. He padded downstairs on the bare wood treads to the basement lab, where tiny lights swam in the dark like tropical fish with luminescent scales in a vast aquarium.
With a ballpoint pen in a logbook that lay in the glow of a tiny clip-on task lamp, he neatly wrote the appropriate number. He checked the pendulum’s operation—it never betrayed the least fatigue—and retraced his route to the matrimonial bed. Weary of this labor-intensive routine, he connected the pendulum to a scroll of graph paper with an automated pen, to record irregularities in the arc of the swing. In effect, he invented a seismograph.
Even that was not enough. The Sire connected the pendulum to an induction coil sensor, which converted its motion to electrical signals, which in turn fed into a cathode ray tube, which displayed this data as a classic sine wave, a thin green line, with variations in amplitude inflicted by the environmental noise. The next step would involve a laser to watch the pendulum swing, to translate its motion to interference patterns, which could then be corrected by mathematical analysis, to transcend the barrier imposed by material tolerances that he found intolerable.
In the guise of a stage-bound lecturer who can see but not hear his captive audience, he expounded this idea.
“Imagine if you will an electromagnetic pulse that propagates itself through space for millions of years, with no friction to slow it or throw it off course. That is a ray of light. It wastes no energy, owes no debt to its origin, concentrates all in its straight line path to infinity. Yet light can be bent by a lens, or by gravity, if an object is near and massive enough. Is it ray or particle, energy or mass? Is it the ultimate paradox? I say it is pure beauty.”
By this point, the Sire was terminally ill. He talked about the final improvement in a voice that quavered with scientific zeal. To the end, he monitored and tuned the apparatus. In a vinyl binder, he left a typewritten manual of clear instructions for use and maintenance, in case we were moved to continue the experiment.
We leafed through the binder the way one peruses a densely printed contract for an electronic gadget, unable to focus on a single word. We evaded his plea for a promise to carry on. Our pose of dejection, our downcast eyes, our fondling of the hapless dog said it all.
He smoked for over forty years, drank scotch and gin, and subscribed to a tough-guy code of conduct promoted by crime magazines and detective novels, which he consumed in bulk. The first rule of the code was never to blab. This gave the thing an aura, like the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Athens, or the secret rites of the Rosicrucians. After years of high blood pressure, a pain in his chest, and a stern warning from his personal physician, he quit smoking and cut down on drinking. He never mentioned the warning. The lifestyle change appeared to be a spontaneous act of free will.
The collection of briar pipes in their wooden stand remained on display as a kind of sculpture. They resembled golf clubs in miniature, a poor association, since the Sire loathed the game. To him it stood for a world of country clubs, of rich bitches and fair-haired boys, of cocktails and dances in gowns and tuxedos, a world from which he recoiled in disgust, from which he was forced into exile. Yet the Consort hailed from that gilded pavilion on which he turned his back. As for golf, he said he tried it once, didn’t like it, and never tried it again.
An aroma of tar and ashes wafted from the row of pipes, their polished bowls a rich swirl of brown and umber, their black stems marked by the imprint of his teeth. The little aluminum tamper lay beside them, a tool like a flat-head nail with the point hammered to a slender spoon. He used it to pack tobacco in the pipe bowl, not too loose or the fire would go out, and not too firm or the draw would suffer. A single meerschaum, bought for the sake of its pale carved bowl, a baroque extravagance of goblin grotesque, an impulse purchase in a specialty shop he found on an out-of-town excursion, retained its virgin purity.
A bundle of pipe cleaners was a revelation. The raw material of childhood craft, fuzzy stiff caterpillars to bend and twist, they had a real use, a prior existence as a kind of disposable bottle brush, to clear a pipe stem of liquid crud. Cans and pouches of shredded tobacco with lithograph labels slowly moldered. None of us wanted to try it, though we found the exhibit intriguing.
The cigarettes were merely a habit, and one he was glad to shed, he said. He noticed, after an interval, an uptick in the state of his health, his sense of well-being. The sense of taste sharpened after years of dullness. He supposed the loss was inevitable, one of the gross indignities of age, which he described to inspire horror and pity.
With a discipline we never suspected, far from gaining weight from the rediscovered pleasure of the dinner table, the Sire shed pounds. He returned to the figure he must have flaunted before we were born, or if not to that athletic ideal, a trim that suited a man of seventy. The Consort quit smoking cigarettes too.
As for alcohol, it could not be denied. Drink was their nightly ritual, the basis of an exclusive club with a membership of two. Alcohol blunted the knife of perception. It improved one’s outlook by blurring the edges. It had its own lingo. They switched from gin to jug wine, but the forms remained intact—the highball glasses, the crushed ice, the embroidered coasters to protect the wood tables, the rigmarole of rounds and refills.
We had to admit the drug was sanctified by centuries of use, perfectly legal, with known effects. They were safe in the ancestral hall, not driving on narrow country roads. They were exercising their right as adults. If we found fault, called them alcoholics, bemoaned their escape from the outside world, maybe that was our problem.
Not long after the lifestyle change, a physical exam that included a probe of the Sire’s colon found polyps. Some were cancerous. They could be removed, and prognosis on that score was good. But the cancer had spread to the liver. The Sire had a year to live, two or more with treatment. This news he relayed by telephone in an offhand way, as if reporting so-so results from his long experiment in the basement lab on the physics of the pendulum.
He elected treatment, which included chemotherapy, which was tiresome to say the least. The effects of chemo were worse than the disease, except the disease was fatal. Then the nurse who repeatedly stuck his arm said the veins were worn out. For a squeamish man who hated fuss, who flinched at needles, who passed out at the sight of blood, his own or anyone else’s, this was insupportable. A surgeon installed a port near the neck, a cyborg feature the Sire delighted in showing off, as proof of his faith in the scientific method.
He put his affairs in order. He made a will and provided for the Consort. To us, the heirs and offspring of his loins, he tried to offload from the estate such items as he deemed desirable: his collection of clocks that struck the hours and played Westminster Chimes; obsolete tools and electrical gear; a lawnmower that would not start; furniture somewhat the worse for wear; and an ugly ceramic frog ashtray.
We declined these gifts, and the Sire was hurt. In the midst of tragedy, he sulked. Useless to point out how futile this was. Like characters in a grim farce, we played each scene as it came along. Who wrote this script?
At the end of the allotted span, the thread spun by the fates ran out. The Sire, who in earlier times had displayed the dramatic flair of the hypochondriac, took a dive. Liver failure came all at once: swelling, jaundice, extreme fatigue. In barely a week, he could not split wood or stack it in the woodpile made to the true dimensions of a cord. He could not haul wood to the cast-iron stove or remove the ashes. He could not descend to the basement lab, to monitor the ongoing research. He could not walk in the wild greenwood with the beagle that lay at his feet. He could no longer rise from the padded recliner that faced the enormous television screen.
The Consort was beside herself. With heroic calm, one winter night she phoned ahead to the hospital from their woodland retreat. The time had come. She bundled the Sire in the car, which steamed a plume of white in the black night sky. She drove into town and checked him in. She notified us.
We adult children gathered at the bedside, hugged in the corridor, and flagged down nurses. We had suffered all these years. We had listed his crimes and recited his injustices for hours on end. We had compared notes and vied for victim status, like contestants on some television game show. Now we marveled at how a tyrant who warped our lives, an impatient man who did as he pleased, an engineer and executive could shrink to this, a hospital patient. We watched in shifts. We waited.
The Sire said little. He had no appetite for hospital meals delivered on a tray. To the Youngest he confessed he was “beyond tired.” He slipped into unconsciousness.
His breathing grew less and less. Propped up in bed, he developed a horrible noise in the chest, a death rattle. A nurse appeared from time to time and matter-of-factly drained the fluid collecting in the lungs. No one could say when the end would come.
The end came at midnight. The Youngest volunteered to stay overnight in the hospital room. Maybe he saw what the rest of us didn’t. Maybe he loved the Sire more. They fought the hardest. They were most alike. They had reconciled some years before, as much as anyone could. We gathered again at the bedside in the dark hospital in the dead of night. The Consort was silent. No one knew what to say.
The following day, we gathered in the ancestral hall. Neighbors appeared at the door from nowhere. They carried covered bowls, platters, and casseroles of homemade food. The food piled up on the dining table, an impromptu buffet. The neighbors stayed to exchange a word of sympathy. They refused to take off their coats or sit. We assumed this was part of the custom. We had not grown up in this neck of the woods. We stood in a hopeless huddle and stared at mounds of food. No one was hungry.
The Sire, we discovered, wrote his own obituary. It was neatly typed and placed in a plain manila envelope. He left instructions to send it to the newspaper. Funeral arrangements were already made. He had chosen cremation.
A pastor suggested by hospital staff for just such an emergency, a young woman ordained but attached to no parish, a capable sort whom none of us knew, spoke at a service in the funeral home. She had met the Sire in his hospital bed, and they talked a little. She summed up his life and took us by surprise.
He loved to solve problems. He stood for what was right. He married and stayed married to the same woman for over fifty years. He served in the army in two wars, yet he never bragged or claimed his due as a veteran. He worked. He supported a family. He left no debts. If he was brusque with the ignorant and with those who refused to learn from mistakes, whose fault was that? This relief pastor who knew her job made him sound like a man we wanted to meet.
We dispersed as snow began to fall. The Youngest volunteered to stay overnight to keep the Consort company. No one said this was necessary. She liked the gesture, though.
Snow fell all day. Driving was hazardous. The long double track of gravel through the woods was buried deep in snow. The following day in tall rubber boots, the Youngest waded out to the road, where a tree had fallen from the weight of snow and blocked the way. Like friendly elves in a bedtime story, the neighbors reappeared with shovels and a snowplow mounted on a pickup truck. A chainsaw roared through the winter landscape.
The Sire went up in smoke as he wished, in a furnace of white-hot efficiency. After an interval, the funeral home politely asked what to do with the ashes. In all his preparations, the Sire had failed to say. The Youngest, who was fond of cemeteries, memorial inscriptions, and final resting places, suggested a grave with a headstone marker.
The Consort agreed. She intended to sell the ancestral hall and move to a distant retirement village. For the moment, though, she was staying put.
They chose a plot in Riverview Cemetery, high on a hill overlooking the river, near historic stones from the eighteenth century, under a hemlock tree. They did not see fit to consult the others. They chose a gray granite headstone with an arched top. They wrote the name and dates to carve. By the time all this was done, it was spring.
On a warm April morning, with bright sun and brisk wind, blossoms rained from cherry and dogwood. We stood at the grave, a small square hole a few feet deep, trim and geometrical. The turf around it lay untouched. The Sire, we felt, would approve.
The cemetery employee placed a little paper carton, much like the kind used for Chinese takeout, in the hand of the Youngest. It was clean and smelled like nothing at all. It was heavy, as though filled with sand.
He knelt on the grass, reached an arm’s length down, and placed the carton on the floor of the hole. He threw in a handful of dirt. He rose and brushed the dirt from his hands.
At last the Consort spoke: “So this is the end.”