I’ve seen a lot of fiction submissions come through the inbox. Quite a few of those submissions have been highly enjoyable tales. However, I’ve got to say, Ken Goldman’s Hourglass is my favorite short story to find a home here on HNR. This is an absolutely engrossing tale about the nastiness that comes with separation. You’ve got to read this story, Ken is a wizard with the narrative!
“Time goes, you say? Ah, no! Alas, Time stays, we go.”
– Henry Austin Dobson
“It strikes! one, two, Three, four, five, six. Enough, enough, dear watch, Thy pulse hath beat enough.”
— Ben Jonson
Howard removed the hourglass from his mantel, and placing it on the table he watched the grains shift. He had bought the object – a ‘grotesque egg timer,’ Camille once had called it – at some roadside flea market for fifteen bills. Yes, it was cheap and the gizmo looked cheaper with the winged cherub clinging to it, a golden Cupid with arrow in hand. But there was something almost sensual about the piece, something womanly with its figure-eight shape and an erotic symmetry as its contents shifted. Beautiful, really. And a little sad too. Because when you thought about it, the passage of time was always a little sad.
Howard recalled some genius once saying that the only thing constant in life is change. Like those shifting sands, time had altered things significantly with Camille. Similar to that tacky “Days of Our Lives” tag line – - the soaper was one Camille never missed – - like sands through an hourglass these were the days of Howard Jamison’s life, all right. He watched every grain shift from top to bottom as he had watched those days of his life with Camille spill through his fingers.
During their early times, falling in love happened easily. The young man’s electrified hormones overpowered his reason from the moment he noticed how nicely one golden haired Rutgers coed could fill out her ass tugging mini. For Howard that red hot emotion required a full thirteen minutes past “Hello” inside an upscale Manhattan pub, the time needed for Camille Dorsey to finish her merlot and flash a 100 watt smile his way. With a simple touch of her hand Howard felt his heart race, felt the muscles of his groin throb. If she would have allowed it, he would have taken the young woman right there on the bar’s counter, sending the beer mugs and wine glasses flying. But he had waited maybe four weeks before the two officially sealed the deal with breathless promises moaned beneath Howard’s sheets.
“Oh God, Camille, I’ll always love you!” His words just spilled out bypassing his brain completely, a new experience for the young accountant whose usual thoughts required mathematical precision. Then, music to the ears of a young man in love…
Beautiful and sad, the memories. Maybe behind everything beautiful lurked sadness. Howard watched the hourglass’ shifting grains, remembering an early fantasy from those golden days.
Camille wears a uniform from her Parochial school years, one of those Catholic girl’s kilt-like skirts with a crisp white blouse and green knee socks. But the skirt is rolled all the way up and young Camille’s very white panties are fully exposed. Howard reaches for the warm spot beneath them. Camille protests, of course, but her objection lacks earnestness and lasts only for a moment. Noticing the hint of moisture in the material, Howard savors a faint and wonderful whiff of femininity just before he takes her.
With no coaxing from him, the memories came. As an adolescent Camille had attended Our Sisters of Mercy School for Girls. Most males would have considered the green plaid skirt and drab knee socks as unflattering and ugly, but not Howard. Through his adulthood he would have selected that Camille wear her Catholic Girl’s School uniform over anything from Victoria’s Secret. And during one very special night Camille had slid into that very outfit of Howard’s fantasy. The uniform fit perfectly, and (true to his erotic reveries) white cotton panties had replaced Camille’s usual silken undergarments. She protested Howard’s purposely fumbling advances through giggles, as any good young Catholic girl should, although the woman who wore that outfit on that night had been seven years clear of those Sisters of Mercy. Afterwards she had joked, “What would Jesus say?”
“I believe the man would have given me a high five,” Howard answered. “Sister Agnes, however, probably would have put your shapely ass in a sling.”
They both laughed. Soon after, they married. Cue Celine Dion’s number and roll the closing credits. The End. Time to exit the theater all warm and fuzzy.
But not quite. The real end came a few years later…
The grains shifted inside the twin spheres and most of them were gone from the upper portion. Howard sat transfixed, remembering how his love for Camille had somehow evaporated. Or maybe it had merely passed through time’s hourglass to become something else, sifted to a fine dust that easily blows away.
Yes, their love had become something else, but what?
Watching the shifting grains dribble beneath Cupid’s bow, Howard remembered another fantasy from those subsequent less-than-golden days.
Howard straps his wife to their bed and works over her naked flesh with the nub of a lit cigar. She screams while he laughs, shoving the entire Havana stogie down her gullet. From nowhere he produces a lit stick of explosives sputtering flame like a Fourth of July cracker. This he also rams into her mouth and waits for the woman’s brains to explode and fill the sky with crimson goo, creating his own personal Independence Day, his unique fantasy payback.
“Cheating whore! Miserable spoiled cunt!”
“Lying bastard! Go screw another secretary!”
The searing of Camille’s flesh remained only a fantasy. But the accusatory words, those were very real. With a delicious irony that their respective lawyers found both amusing and profitable, few of the couple’s aspersions proved inaccurate. Time, that notorious indian giver, had reclaimed whatever love once had existed between them. From behind a polished mahogany table Martin Shengold, from the legal firm of Matkoff and Shengold, had a term at the ready for the couple’s shared misery.
“Irreconcilable differences. It’s an all-encompassing description, Mr. Jamison, legalese, if you will,” the attorney announced alongside an expressionless Camille. Howard could have sworn he saw blood dripping from the man’s teeth. “Alienation of affections would also suffice, but that sounds a bit harsh, don’t you agree?”
At one hundred and fifty dollars an hour Howard agreed, silently nodding like a moron. He also would have agreed with the suggestion this man swing from the ceiling fan by his testicles.
“How much will these irreconcilable differences be costing me, Mr. Shengold?”
The man offered a smile and jotted a figure on his note pad, slipped the paper across the table. Somehow Howard managed not to laugh out loud.
“You feel like adding a vital organ or two with that request?”
No smile from Camille’s attorney this time. “It’s a fair figure, Mr. Jamison. I mean, considering the circumstances.” Howard turned to his lawyer. Attorney Michael Broder offered no words of comfort.
“The courts usually favor the wife,” he told Howard. “It’s the system. We can walk, of course, but these things tend to drag on and it will probably come to the same thing later. Your wife’s terms are not uncommon. It could be worse.”
“Yes, she could have asked to have my gonads made into earrings.”
“You can keep the dog,” Camille added. “For when Emma visits. She loves little Bieber, you know.” She smiled broadly, turned to Shengold. “Our Emma just loves that Justin Bieber.”
Smiles from the two attorneys. It would have made a nice Rockwell painting had the late artist shown an interest in painting human snakes.
Howard hated the dog, an obnoxious toy poodle who barked incessantly at him. More than once the little fucker had pissed into his shoe. Camille hated the mean tempered canine too, so here was another “Gotcha!” for her. But Howard had no fight left in him. On a grey December morning, ten years of marriage would dissolve with the stroke of a pen. House, car, even custody of his own child — Poof! these all would be gone, like those grains of sand that passed through that cheap hourglass. Cupid’s golden arrows may have once hit their mark, but Howard knew their long lasting effect had been two dysfunctional hearts left to bleed out over this polished mahogany table.
“I want my hourglass,” he had insisted, not even sure he knew why. He felt a great pit had opened, swallowing everything he had owned, and he just needed something – anything – he could point to and say, “Yes, this still belongs to me!”
There was the chance Camille would fight him for the timepiece simply because she could, but as it turned out she had no problem with the request. She leaned towards him, whispered so only he could hear. “It’s yours. Because if you didn’t take that piece of shit, I would have put in in the trash.”
Howard would not have admitted it to anyone who asked, but at that moment he realized why he loved that damned timepiece as much as he did.
He loved it because Camille hated it.
He stood up, turned to Camille and Shengold. “About these papers, I’ll get back to you, okay? Fuck you very much.”
And he walked.
The grains shifted more quickly through the glass now, and wasn’t there something poetic in that? The less time that remained, the faster those grains seemed to pass through the hourglass’ aperture. The bottom portion had filled almost completely, but enough time remained for one last memory.
The phone call…
It had awakened him at the ungodly hour of – what had the digital clock read? - 2:37 a.m. For some reason he remembered that.
“Is this Howard Jamison?”
“Who–Who am I speaking to–?”
The caller ignored his question.
“Your wife is Mrs. Camille Jamison?”
“My ex-wife. Or soon to be. We’re separated. She and my daughter are staying at her sister’s in Glenn Echoes. What is this abou–?”
“Mr. Jamison, my name is Officer John Tandy. I’m afraid there’s been an accident involving your…involving Camille Jamison.”
The rest became a blur of policespeak gibberish, but the details that Howard managed to understand shook him awake.
“Car accident on the Interstate…your wife…so sorry…need you to come to County General to identify the remains…”
The woman on the slab inside the morgue was Camille, all right. Apparently, she had been drinking, having come from Moxie’s, a local hot spot for cheaters and the newly divorced. Her Honda had swerved into the oncoming lane of the Interstate and into the path of an eighteen wheeler hauling Jersey produce, whose shaken driver was full of unnecessary apologies. Camille never stood a chance. One look at her ruined face told that story. For one horrific moment Howard thought it resembled an overripe tomato that had burst open.
Deep shame glutted his thoughts. Among Howard’s recent fantasies, one had involved cutting her Honda’s brake line. Pissed off to his limits he had almost done it, too, weeks earlier during another of his own benders. But he had remembered little Emma and decided maybe the alcohol was doing his thinking. Still, Howard could have sworn that fucking Bieber looked at him kind of funny that night as if he knew, and the mutt spent hours growling his displeasure deep inside his throat. Howard kept him locked inside the bathroom all night to avoid looking at him.
Camille’s unforeseen death brought with it a myriad of decisions. The divorce papers had not yet been signed and he remained her legal husband, so those decisions fell on him. Howard decided on a simple funeral but no burial. Some family, some friends, a somewhat forced eulogy.
“She was my wife, the mother of my child. I loved her. I’ll miss her.” Short. Simple. And except for the wife and mother part, essentially bullshit. With a phone call to the crematorium and the selection of an ornate urn — the marmalade colored ‘golden sunset’ model — it was over.
But not quite.
Howard wanted to be there to see, and he was careful to select the last dress Camille Dorsey Jamison would ever wear. Asked to remove anything noncombustible, he noticed she had not been wearing her wedding band although he still wore his because it never occurred to him to take it off. He removed a necklace that had belonged to her grandmother, placing it into a plastic baggie with some of her other jewelry to dispense to Camille’s sister. None of this thoughtfulness lessened the intense stare Howard received from the bald headed man at the cremation chamber who ran the show.
“You’re certain this is what you want?” he asked, straightening Camille’s blouse for her 1800 degree Fahrenheit trip into the next life. “Usually we don’t dress them — especially not like this.”
“It’s something personal between my wife and me,” Howard told him, deciding it would not be tasteful to ask if they had dressed her in the white panties he had left with the mortician. The bald man wiped his forehead and took one last look at the young woman dressed in her Catholic Girls’ School uniform. He looked like he might smile but covered his mouth before it showed. Yeah, he probably knew about the panties, Howard figured. He handed the man the golden urn and stayed to watch Camille’s pinewood casket slip into a tunnel of flames.
The rest was ritual-by-the-book: a call from Edwin Fleuhr at the funeral home to come and collect the urn that now contained Camille’s ashes, the requisite expressions of sympathy from the mortician and his comment about the tasteful selection of the vessel Howard had made for his wife’s remains, then home to place the urn upon his mantel for friends and family to see. Howard could not resist a peek inside the urn. Its contents had been sifted thoroughly into a fine grain-like powder, and like the container that held them, Camille’s ashes were as golden as the sun except for a few flecks of green he figured were the remains of her Our Sisters of Mercy uniform.
“Beautiful,” he found himself saying aloud. It seemed a shame to hide her ashes inside a container where he could not always see them. Considering this, Howard saw no reason why he had to.
Bieber was in growling mode again. His eyes shifted from Howard to the hourglass and back. His growls grew deeper.
The grains had run out of the top portion of the glass, some of the powdery substance clinging to the sides. Time had come to flip the thing over, to start the whole process again. Howard turned the timepiece on its end. The winged Cupid was supposed to shift his position and turn over also, but the stupid cherub remained hugging the glass upside down. Maybe there was some meaning to be found in that image of Cupid with his bow, ridiculously hanging on to the timepiece like some kind of wounded bird.
The image was something to consider as Howard watched the object his late wife truly despised, watched the golden ashes (with flecks of green) again sift through the thin aperture inside his hourglass.
Howard had to smile. He could watch the shifting grains all day. And maybe he would.
Bieber’s growls did not stop.