The book that haunts me is the one I never read.
I was tight with the Hardy Boys growing up. Volume after volume, brick by blue brick, they made up the primary colour and foundation of my reading life. Almost as far back as my memories of reading stretch, there they are amid the heights and depths and rubble of my imaginative landscape: at corner stores, in libraries, around the house, at school, summer vacations at the cabin, snow days. The notion of serialized storytelling, of an adventure ending with the promise of another installment soon to come, was something that thrilled me, genuinely. A stable cast of characters facing new threats in each volume was a powerful allure. The books were a blend of dynamism and stasis that offered the illusion of change, which is maybe the kind of change that most adolescents really want. Each cover—how many hours did I spend dreaming myself into those covers?—promised an exotic new location, some terrifying new challenge, and yet, even back then, I think I sought the Hardys because they promised predictability and comfort. Chet and his jalopy, exploring the Bayport harbour in The Sleuth, Joe’s temper, Fenton’s strange penchant for exposing his sons to mortal danger. Every installment was new and different. Every installment was precisely the same. Hardy Boys live forever.
There it is, the one cover that changed everything, me especially, the one that didn’t lure me in but repulsed me, exploded what I thought I knew about safety and reliability. As soon as I saw it, the cover for While The Clock Ticked became a splinter in my mind’s eye that I’ve never been able to completely remove. The absolute vulnerability of the boys rattled something loose deep inside me. The ragged knots of the white gags on Frank and Joe. The whites of their eyes, flashing away from me. The yellows and reds of their shirts—garish against the bleak background—screaming out in alarm. The cords straining beneath the skin of Joe’s neck. The doddering grey-haired man emerging from the black behind the grandfather clock. I can’t make out his eyes at all, and I think that bothered me more than anything.
My imagination fills in the holes. The unseen bonds biting their wrists and ankles — I know these to be unbreakable. The grey-haired man himself: I am convinced that he is stepping forth to pass some horrible judgment on the boys. He is their judge, and the Hardys have never looked so frail, so young. He curses them in a rusty whisper.
Even the title is weird. While the Clock Ticked announces not a mystery to be solved, a location to be explored, a piece of treasure to be discovered or rescued, but a boundless, unlocalized event, a kind of temporal disruption. The cover was as far as I ever got. I don’t remember ever peeking inside. The book seemed beyond me in a way I didn’t want to reflect on. It was more than I was capable of, or more than I wanted to contend with. Strangely, my memories of the book have themselves become twisted, disrupted. When I discuss the series with my son and find myself whispering half-truths about how this book affected me when I was his age, I am corrected when I get the title of this installment confused with another: I find myself referring to this one as What Happened at Midnight, which is actually the title of the previous adventure. I’m not sure why my mind makes the switch. I think it’s because What Happened at Midnight seems more fitting to me—I’m convinced that something awful is about to happen to Frank and Joe, and maybe the looming presence of the clock gets me thinking about time. Precisely what is about to happen remains hidden in the darkest folds of my imagination. The top shelf of my son’s bookcase is tightly packed, vertically, horizontally, with blue Hardy bricks in various states of decay. While the Clock Ticked is not among them.
The other scary thing is that years later I saw the grey-haired man in the real world.
I saw him at my Baba’s funeral. She was seized by a brain aneurysm when I was about 14 or 15 years old. Looking back now, I cringe at my inability to grieve for her in the way that she deserved. I was old enough to be shocked by her sudden passing, but awkwardly mired deep within the murk linking adolescence to adulthood, and thus unwilling or unable to acknowledge the rawness that her vanishment left inside of me. The magnitude of what was happening didn’t hit me until I saw my Gido in the passenger side of a vehicle pulling up in front of the church, a cigarette heavy with ash drooping from his lip. But even then what snatched my breath wasn’t the gravity of my grandmother’s absence but the sight of my grandfather’s utter loneliness. I remember seeing Gido through the truck window, lost somewhere behind puffy eyes and a dark suit, and then I looked away, his solitude too awful to witness.
The terror doesn’t scratch along my ribs until I walk into the church with my family. As we make our way toward the front, I become alert to a grey presence off to the left, sitting alone at the far end of a pew, at the blurry edges of my perception. I am willed forward down the centre aisle by the bodies around me, though I turn my head as I slide past the man—I see now it’s a man. I don’t recognize him. It’s only when I’m sitting down that I realize where I know him from. His suit is the colour of stormclouds, his hands rest coldly on his lap, his eyes are dark slits, his hair a silver-grey plume. I know this cannot be, and yet there he sits, a spectre torn from unread pages, a conjuration ripped free from its spell book and set loose in the world. As speakers come forward to talk and weep, I feel the immensity of him pressing on the back of my head. I do not turn around until after the ceremony is over, but by then the grey man is gone. Of course he is.
My memories of her tend to cluster in and around the farmhouse kitchen. I see her moving back and forth from stove to sink, stirring, cleaning. The windows weep with moisture from boiling pots and the press of bodies at family gatherings. Motes of flour cling to her hands and dance in the air all around her as she kneads magic into a lump of dough, all the while listening, laughing. I remember her hands quite well: thick ribbons of purple and blue veins crisscrossing just there, under diaphanous skin. I see her hands curl and rise to cover her mouth when she coughs. She has a gravelly rasp that never seems to quit her, like cement being mixed in her lungs. A lifetime of cigarettes and prairie winters. Sometimes she coughs so hard that she can’t catch her breath, and when she is gripped in such a spasm, I am terribly frightened. Behind thick glasses she has the kindest eyes, always squinting — sometimes happily, sometimes pensively, often both.
And I see her sitting at the kitchen table, alone. I am peering from around the corner and watching the back of her head as she navigates a crossword or sits reading — quietly, contentedly. As a boy I was astounded that no matter the time, Baba would always be there at the table. She is the last to bed, and no matter when you get up — even the dead of night, full dark — there she is. Turn the corner and there’s the back of her head, a book spread out before her. Predictable. Comforting.
She was a tremendous reader and a lover of words. Puzzle games on TV governed the rhythms of her afternoons. Sitting on the couch watching Super Password and Wheel of Fortune. She could have made a fortune. Scrambled within my daughter’s middle name, Anneliese, is Baba’s name, Elsie. I think the Hardys would be proud of that secret little code connecting generations that never met. I think she would be too.
It shames me to concede that I don’t know where her love of reading came from. I wish I knew which books whispered over the embers of her imagination as a girl, wish I knew the stories she dreamed herself into, and the ones she wanted no part of. I wonder sometimes if reading was an escape for her or if it helped her orient herself by rooting her in place—the prairie, the house, the kitchen, the table—moment by moment, page by page. I wish I would have talked to her about these things. For the life of me I can’t think of a single book that I can link to her. No cover stands out. Her library occupies a mythic space in my mind and yet I can’t prove that it ever existed.
And, for the life of me, I don’t have a final memory of Baba. There is a hole in my memory where my brain and my heart plead for a hug and a whisper. A wave and a smile through a car window.
Off in a side room her coffin is opened for viewing. The grey man is gone but the fear surges through me once more. I don’t want to see her in that box. I don’t want to be anywhere near it. A cousin urges me toward the coffin, tells me that she looks so peaceful. I will never forget these words, but they aren’t enough to overcome what roots me to the floor. I don’t know what I thought I was going to see if I looked inside. I know she isn’t rotten or deformed, that she is still skin and bones, pallid skin and flower-stem bones, but to see her reduced to skin and bones is precisely what I fear.
What would it have meant for me to peer inside? And what would it have meant for her? I will never know.
The aneurysm struck in the night, jolting her awake. The suddenness of this event and the unseen violence of it are beyond my reckoning. What happens at midnight in my grandmother’s head, somewhere amid the vibrant seams of her mind, is the very worst thing.
In my 20s I am leaving the family cabin and I take with me a blue Adidas coat that I find in the closet. It has been archived there so long that its time has come again. It is retro, stylish. Only much later do I realize that I associate this coat with Baba. She has worn it there at the cabin. Perhaps it was hers to begin with, and she left it, or forgot it. There is a black-edged hole burned through the fabric down near where the teeth of the zipper mesh together. This might be the mark left by an ember shooting from a campfire. Or maybe it is from the ashes of a cigarette.
Kneeling at her grave, clutching a rose, staring at the roof of her coffin in the muddy hole in the ground. I think about her hands again, how they might be positioned. She is buried with a book of crosswords and a family portrait. I wonder if she is holding these things in her hands.
Looking back, my pose feels inauthentic, a kind of performance. Like I was kneeling that way because it seemed like a sufficiently penitent, solemn thing to do—portrait of a grieving adolescent. My uncles had stayed out the night before, digging her grave and passing around a bottle. This seemed to me then the most genuine, heartfelt, adult activity I could imagine. I felt like such a child, kneeling there in the limp grass beside the grave. A hot rivet stuck in my throat. The flower felt heavy in my hand. I remember letting it drop into the sodden pit, but not where it fell. In my mind it bounces softly on top of the coffin and settles there, just off perpendicular, a minute-hand blooming a few ticks from twelve o’clock.
I sign the book out of the library, just to see. It isn’t as heavy as I thought. This is how it begins:
“I wonder who that man is, Frank,” whispered blond Joe Hardy, peering curiously from a second-floor window of their home.
I stop there and close it shut. The spine gives a tired sigh and a few motes of dust take to the air, sparking in the light. A part of me wants to write that even peering inside was an act of courage, a way of putting my hand on the shoulder of my younger self as he trembled at the touch of that cover, as he walked into that church, as he stared into that cold hole in the earth. But of course those things can’t happen. That boy is buried somewhere too. And I want to write that closing the book was like closing a coffin, that it thumped shut with a measured finality, that the shutting was an ending, a profound rumble that shivered my ribcage. But those things didn’t happen either.
It’s just a book.