Burt Landers was an old curmudgeon who lived in a run down, Victorian style home, in the middle of a crowded, run down, urban neighborhood. He was born a cranky old man, a trait made worse from aging. I swear his first word must have been "GetoffmylawnYAHdamnkids!" I should know – he was my great uncle.
The neighborhood kids nicknamed him Yah because his voice cracked at the word “Yah” every time he yelled at them to get off his lawn. The kids tormented him to no end. He waved his fist at the squealing kids as they came crashing through his yard chasing after their runaway ball. They would yell back, "YAH, YAH, YAH,” while shaking their little fists at him. It was like they were angrily agreeing with him. They would laugh and run off, and Yah would scowl out his upstairs window, keeping a watchful eye.
I've been charged with the task of clearing out his home before the bulldozers arrive. He wasn't a hoarder when he was alive, not like the whack jobs you see on that show; but he's got a ton of junk. His hallways are walk-able, but every nook and cranny of his home and garage is occupied with some random trinket.
I'm upstairs in his bedroom, looking out the window down at his dirt yard. There are a couple kids playing ball in the yard next door. They are dressed in tattered T-shirts and shorts, a little too cold outside not to be wearing a jacket. Inevitably, the ball gets tossed a little too high and far, it soars over the fence and lands in the middle of Yah’s yard. One kid shoots a look up at the window where I'm standing. Cautiously, he squishes his body between two loose boards in the fence. He wiggles his body free into Yah’s yard and dashes for the ball. Another quick glance up and he squeezes his body back to the safety of his own dirt patch.
My great aunts, Burt’s two sisters, asked me to rummage through Yah’s junk to find anything I think might be valuable. They wanted to come themselves, but they are both feeble, overweight, octogenarian recluses. They haven't travelled anywhere for as long as I've been alive anyway. Mom and I used to go on road trips every summer to visit them. “Making the rounds,” Mom would say. Stopping at “The Aunt’s” place first for a few weeks, then onto Uncle Burt’s.
He actually had a sense of humor about his nickname; I think he felt it was a term of endearment. One day, when I was in my early teens, a little too old for road trips with Mom, but still too young to be left home alone, Yah came from watching the kids at the window and smiled at me saying, "they get a kick out of tormenting the old man next door. Callin' me Yah — that's funny." I started calling him Yah as a joke at first, but it just stuck. Mom always called him Uncle Burt, because I think she thought the nickname was disrespectful. Mom passed away several years ago; otherwise she'd be here with me today.
Rooting through his junk is depressing. I’ve found nothing of value – I’m sure to the disappointment of ‘The Aunts.’ He's just got a ton of old, worthless keepsakes. Except for the books. They are musty and dusty. I linger at the bookshelf, trying to pick out only one I'd like to keep. It's hard to choose only one – I'd like to take the whole collection – but it wouldn't fit in my tiny apartment. Nowadays, for people like me, it's quite convenient to store all my books in my computer and phone — everything is getting smaller. But, I still love the touch and smell (especially that old musty smell) of a real live book. I skim the dusty spines with my fingers. My fingers slow and then stop on a title that looks interesting. I pluck the book from the shelf and leaf through the dog-eared, yellowing pages. I replace it and let my fingers dance along the spines again.
My fingers stop suddenly, involuntarily, like the rod of a water-diviner, on an old book. It's another hardback, the spine cracked straight down the middle. The paper sleeve is long gone; smudgy, greasy fingerprints tarnish the dark brown, canvass cover. I run my fingers across the gilded lettering of the title: The Hourglass. This is the one I decide to keep.
The walls in old Yah’s house are covered, almost from floor to ceiling, with nicely framed prints of his favorite paintings. ‘The Aunts’ told me specifically to look for valuable paintings. They had heard a story of an old man who cleaned out his attic and found a lost Van Gogh – a REAL Van Gogh. Just like buying the winning lotto ticket. They were banking on Yah – old eccentric Yah – to be hoarding some priceless painting in his home – so they could retire wealthy – they told me. Retire from what? I'm not sure. They haven't worked a day since I've known them. They've lived on social security and disability checks for decades. I don't even know what they'd do with a windfall if they got so lucky. They don't travel, they don't drive – they just sit at their house and watch TV all day, every day. As it is, all of Yah’s masterpieces are worthless prints. He just liked looking at them, I guess.
I make my way downstairs and browse through old Yah’s trinkets. That’s all he has, just trinkets – little clay statues of animals and other worthless knickknacks. A line of elephants arranged largest to smallest decorate a narrow sofa table pushed against a wall. Above the table, I see a dozen or so paintings (prints) hanging on the wall. The center most prominent print is a precise depiction of an hourglass. I've seen it before, on every visit in fact, but now with the book in my hand, it suddenly captures my attention. It's as if I'm seeing it for the first time. I feel mild satisfaction at the synchronicity of the book I’m holding and the painting I’m seeing. You can see in the painting that the grains of sand are more than half way through their cycle. The sand appears to blur – it almost looks like it is actually falling if you look away and then quickly back at it. Stare at it for too long and you would swear you saw the sand rushing down into the base bulb.
While still looking at the painting, I absentmindedly open the book and it opens in the middle where the spine is cracked. The page is marred with a few light pencil marks. A few words are underlined; there are a few exclamation points. Curious, I flip to the title page and I'm astonished to find that the author of the book is none other than Burt Landers. I'm shocked and delighted. No one, not Mom or ‘The Aunts’, ever told me old Yah had written a book. Maybe they didn't know. He certainly never mentioned it in conversation over the years.
With my interest now piqued, I walk over to the print of the hourglass and examine it close up. I can't read the signature on the print, but I'm sure it's not Yah’s. I grab the painting on both sides and unhook it from its nail. Dark dirt neatly frames a clean, beige wall. I lean the picture and the book against the wall by the door.
Meandering around the living room, I continue to admire Yah’s collection of worthless masterpieces. On the opposite wall where I found the hourglass picture, I see a dusty old, actual hourglass sitting on a bookshelf. I dust off the top of the wooden frame with my hand and turn the glass so the sand starts spilling down into the empty bulb. It makes a very quiet ‘shhhh’ sound. I pick it up, flip it back over and add it to my growing collection of worthless treasure. That’s all my studio apartment can handle, I remind myself. I hear the next-door neighbor kids howl with laughter and I wonder if Yah were here now, would he go yell at them with fists waving. Probably.
I rummage some more through Yah’s stuff. I open his fridge, more out of habit than curiosity, and see it is full of adult nutrition meal shakes. Shaking my head, I close the door. I feel a little guilty I didn't spend more time with him and sad I didn't know he'd written a book. I would have liked to ask him about it. But, he was a loner, I rationalize – he liked his isolation.
Nothing more worth salvaging and cluttering up my tiny apartment or anything that would bring a huge sum for ‘The Aunts.’ I collect my three little treasures and put them in my car to take home. I will hang the painting in front of my couch above the TV, put the hourglass on the coffee table, and read my dead uncle's book anticipating words of wisdom – a stolen legacy that may teach me something about life, or my family.
I pull out my phone before I head for home and call ‘The Aunts’ to let them know the disappointing news.
"Hi Thelma.” Thelma is in charge of answering the pale green phone that hangs on the wall in the kitchen. It has a long, unraveled cord that has been pulled so hard for so long that it hangs limp, sweeping the floor.
"Yeah, I went through everything. He only had prints. Nothing of value, I'm afraid."
She sounds disappointed, but not surprised. She tells me she has arranged for a donation truck to come and pick up the furniture and anything else they think will be of value for a struggling family.
Before I pull out of the cracked cement driveway, one of the kids from next door runs out in the front yard. Fists in the air, the kid is laughing and yelling, "YAH, YAH, YAH!” I roll down the passenger side window and call the boy over to my car. He's got mud smudges on his face, he grips onto the windowpane of the half rolled down car window with his grubby fingers and I see there is mud caked under his nails. I smile and ask, "Did you know my uncle?"
The boy shyly nods.
"He was kind of a crazy old kook, huh?”
He laughs at my playful description of the old grump.
"Where is he?" The boy asks innocently.
"I'm afraid he is gone, he passed away last week."
"Oh." He responds, looking down.
“Yah willed the property to the city, so they will be tearing down the house in a few days. He wanted the land to be turned into a small neighborhood park.” I guess I think that piece of information will cheer the kid up.
But, he simply says, "oh" and then "I gotta go" as he runs back to his dirt yard. That's when I notice that the kids don't live in a big, single family home, like I thought. The place has been converted into an apartment building. Their mom comes out the front door, calling the kids inside to eat. She is young, has long, shiny black hair tied in a low hanging ponytail. She looks suspiciously at me, I smile and wave at her. Hesitantly, she waves back, not smiling, pushing the kids into the house as they get to the doorway.
After the two-hour drive back home, I take my little pile of booty inside and leave the picture and hourglass by the front door. I take the book to bed with me. It didn’t take long to understand why Yah never became a famous writer. Reading the story was like riding a dangerously old, rickety roller coaster; it was slow and shaky to start and the ride down was just scary. The story line was something in between The Picture of Dorian Gray and the movie, Night at the Museum. The premise was that when flipped, this magical hourglass would cause an image in a painting near it to animate, talk, make sounds and move in its frame. For example, a picture of a boat in the ocean would sway on the waves and the water could be heard lapping up against its side. Or, Norman Rockwell’s famous self-portrait painting himself would simply continue to paint. The main character in Yah’s story had long conversations with the portraits. Parts of it were interesting but, in the end, the main character dies alone in his home full of magical talking paintings. The secret of his magic hourglass dies with him.
I flip to the front of the book to see who would have published the story. There is no publishing information, no copyright date, nothing. He must have had a bookmaker slap it together for him, or something. Clearly, this must be the only copy in the world.
The next day I hang the picture of the hourglass and put the actual hourglass on my coffee table. The hourglass is quite elegant. It feels solid, weighty in my hand. I decide to test it out, to see if it’s accurate. I set the timer on my phone and flip over the hourglass. The sand starts ‘shhhhshhhing’ down into the empty bulb. While I’m waiting, I start investigating hourglasses on the Internet. I read in Wikipedia that a type of sand glass is invented sometime in 150 BC. The technology is lost, then re-discovered again sometime in the Middle Ages in Europe. I examine the hourglass on my table and realize that I’m literally watching time pass. It’s the physical manifestation of the passage of time. My skin bumps, I shake it off and keep reading.
Surfing different sites related to the hourglass, I find an interesting article about a particular hourglass that is worth over twenty grand. Well, that would be a lot of dough. Not enough for ‘The Aunts,’ I suspect, but still. It’d pay my bills for six or seven months. I toss around the idea of selling it. But breaking up the trio feels wrong. I study the picture on the wall and think about Yah’s story. I wonder if I can re-write it, make it better somehow. I start taking notes about what I remember of the story. After I sketch out an outline, I sit back, look at the picture again and wonder if this is exactly what old Yah did before writing his book. I look back down at the hourglass on the table. The timer on my phone goes off as I see the last grain drop on the top of the pyramid of sand.