The cathedral clock across the street from Nick’s home rang out the hours, the quarters. The clock chimed out his life, the Westminster Quarters and memories floating from the august belfry, the huge bells hidden inside, the clock ticking. The clock Nick once tended to.
The quarter-hour chimed. Four precise notes. Nick was young and learning to ride a bicycle, life still vast, the sky welcoming him, people smiling. His mother and father wore starched smiles, which seemed so real then. His mother was a beautiful vision in lavender, calm, beatific. His father was confident, baritone voice like Gregory Peck. They seemed to love him with an intensity that frightened him. The country was prospering, everyone seemed to drive in their Chevys and Pontiacs, fedoras abounded.
The half-hour chimed, eight notes. His parents were divorcing. Starched smiles dissolved, parents fought over rights. He was twelve. His father called his mother irresponsible, a senseless dreamer, a Communist. She called him a drunk, a lecherous sort. Voices echoed, fusillades struck Nick. He just listened, knew that he’d end up somewhere or another. Parents no longer spoke to Nick in terms of love, but adulthood, choices, obligations. Color inside the lines.
Too lazy, too indecisive to decide his fate, they sent Nick to boarding school.
In between the quarters, with their distinctive chimes, Nick thought of boarding school. Mother and Father promised to come, they drank, he spent lonely Christmases, dreaming of families he couldn’t have. He tried to wangle invitations; he was ostracized. The South was seized by bus boycotts and civil rights. He painted a swastika atop the chapel to protest the headmaster’s control, he was expelled. Neither parent really wanted him, but they expected him to live their way. Be a lawyer, his father proclaimed. No, a concert pianist, his mother said, tenderness concealing edicts. He just drifted, like a sailor on the sea with no home, no love to return to.
The three-quarter hour chime. College, graduate school, avoiding Vietnam, through some miracle and his father’s ability to alter his records and make up diseases. He found power in writing, learned to become cynical. He learned to love, to fall out of love. Back in. He married, had a daughter, a son. He lived through Nixon, crooks, disco, crises of confidence, Iranians yelling. Reaganomics and greed. He insisted that they become artists, his children. He tried to coordinate their lives, their clothing, their smiles even. His wife said he had his father’s need for control. He argued, he yelled, but a part of him feared she was right.
Wife left, aggression against Kuwait would not stand, Bill Clinton played a saxophone on Arsenio Hall. The kids became actors and gigolos, which disappointed him. Nick judged, he became estranged, he absorbed himself in writing. He wrote drunk families, every story ending in dissolution and drunkenness. He found solace in the Episcopal Church, tending to the old clock atop the cathedral. He thought of himself as a man in charge of people’s lives, keeping them on the go. He thought there was solace and purpose among the falling counterweights, the brass gears working in sync with each other, the giant brass fans spinning as the clock chimed. But outside the tower, it was as if he lived the old ways, seeking gratification, recognition. He sought perfection, even as time marched on, the hours, the quarters spinning round and round.
The hour approached, Clinton left, Bush mangled the English language, Obama replaced him. Nick feared that he didn’t keep people on the go. He made them anxious, frightened, the clock’s benevolent tones concealing a warning: Life is short. And he lived in a rush, trying to fit in everything, success, marriage, stability, trying to live according to a sort of diagram. But still, it didn’t work out. He made time fly and he tried to rescue his wife and adult children, extracting emotional bullets from their souls.
No luck. They told him to fuck himself. Perhaps he deserved it. He tried so hard to keep things under control, they spiraled into a whole other world. He’d drifted from the world, inhabited another inhospitable sphere.
The prelude to the hour rang, the distinctive tones of the four quarters sounding, warning of the hour about to strike. Sixteen notes, arresting, distinctive. Obama was about to be replaced by the man with the orange tint and the lecherous soul. Nick was an old man, who had achieved as a writer, but who had lived much of his life alone. Now, instead of lamenting the wife, the children, all dissolved in his misguided history, he sought beauty.
He sought to find small pleasures among the history he had written, without care. He watched long sunsets, enchanted by dusk’s kaleidoscopic explosions of lavender and pink. He stopped watching cliched Doris Day movies with happy families. He walked through the streets on fall nights, watching the leaves, their bursting symphony of golds and reds. He tried to capture happiness, tried to invite people in for drinks, companionship, but the world declined. Politely. Impolitely. He was alone, but he tried to draw out time, slower, slower, even as the clock ticked, its literal slow tick, the bells chimed, reminding him of so much.
The stroke of the hours began. A deep bell. One. Two. Three….and on went the clock, the old man aware that he stood on the precipice. He put aside his regrets, even as pain pushed at him, as the regrets seemed to unfurl, taunting him. With each stroke, he embraced the world, the cold neighbors. The mother and father who left him in a pathetic wonderland. The teenagers who knocked over his trash cans and laughed, baseball caps turned backwards. The wife, the children who referred to him in four-letter words. He embraced all these with a smile, with each stroke of the hour, a reminder that time was flying, flying, and soon he would be floating into the netherworld beyond.