“It’s time to move along,” thought Mark Burton, “I’ll take down the tent tomorrow.” One more day in Kansas wouldn’t kill him. The police had left him alone and customers had found him, but business had nearly stopped.
I need a new sign – hell, I need a new everything. The tent was old, his truck needed the transmission fixed, and his sign had led a previous life with a realtor before Mark had painted over it. The peeling sign now read:
See the Life-Changing Hourglass
no guarantees, no refunds
The last part is the best. It lets me keep their money when nothing happens. After putting the sign in the tent for the night, Mark took out his flask for a long swallow of inspiration. I hate that hourglass!
It really was amazing, and Mark was its Keeper. I wonder how much I could get for it? The jewel-encrusted gold frame alone would be worth a fortune, but what really made it special was the blue sand of crushed sapphires. I wish I could sell it, but it’s just too dangerous, and only a Keeper should use it. He knew that it was very old, passing to each new Keeper.
People would hear about the hourglass and find his tent, looking sad and broken, just to put their money down, tell him their stories, and take their chances.
“When I was 22, I broke up with Roy just because Pa didn’t approve. I never stopped loving him, and if only . . . .”
“I missed the death of my son because I had to close that deal. I’d give anything to have said goodbye . . . .”
“I should have taken that other job . . . .”
They would all be mesmerized by the beauty of the hourglass when Mark put it on the table. “I’m only a fortune reteller – it’s about your past choices, not the future,” he would say. “This might work, but probably not, and I never know why.” He would turn the hourglass over, and the sapphire sand would begin to run through it.
Mark had timed the hourglass many times, but it was always different. Sometimes it would take two minutes, sometimes much longer. No matter how long it would take, the client would always sit there, hopeful and eager, waiting silently.
Once the sand ran out, the disappointed clients would leave, still carrying their burdens, leaving their money behind. But for a special few, the sapphire sand would reverse, and begin to run backwards, flowing up to the top chamber.
These clients would smile as their pain left them, and once all the sand reached the top, they would simply disappear, vanishing into nothing.
Mark had stopped being surprised by this long ago. He didn’t know where they went or what happened to them, or why they were chosen. He hoped that the lucky ones were sent back to fix their lives and become happy, but he didn’t know.
When he had first become Keeper, Mark had tried it for himself many times, but the sand would always flow quickly to the bottom and just stay there. He had given up long ago.
Back at a nearby fleabag motel and deep into his fifth beer of the evening, Mark wondered again how he had come to this.
I think I was happy once. I think I had a family – I wasn’t always a Keeper. Mark had fragments of dreams, visions of a different life, but his memories really began when he first appeared as a Keeper thirty years ago, in Arizona.
I wish I could have talked to another Keeper. Mark’s first memory was being in this same tent, sitting at the same table, the hourglass in front of him, already knowing what it was, and that he was its Keeper. When will my time finally be up?
“Just a minute,” Mark said, sharply. He still hadn’t gotten over their earlier argument.
“Another drink?” thought Jennie. “It’s ten in the morning and we’re going to a county fair.” She knew there’d be beer at the fair and Mark was bringing a six-pack in case no one sold his favorite.
The fair was over an hour away and Jennie had to drive. It was hot, the air conditioner was broken, and they couldn’t afford to fix it. “We never have any money,” thought Jennie. Mark was working at the car wash and she was picking up extra shifts at the hardware store.
The car was quiet. The baby was asleep and they hadn’t really talked for weeks. Jennie noticed Mark’s hip flask peeking out of his back pocket. “Jeezus,” thought Jennie, “who needs that at a fair?”
“Welcome to the 1988 Coconino County Fair,” the banner read.
“I want to take Annie to see the animals,” said Jennie. “Maybe that’ll quiet her.” Annie had been crying the last half hour. “I want to see the Midway,” Mark responded. Mark won, as usual.
They quarreled all the along the Midway -- this attraction was too expensive, that one too boring. At the end stood a simple tent, with a sign out front.
See the Life-Changing Hourglass
“I’m going in,” Mark announced. “It’s only five bucks and I haven’t tried anything.” He ducked inside before Jennie could object. There was an old man, sitting at a table, smoking a cigarette and reading the newspaper. “What do I get for my money?” asked Mark.
“Tell me your problems and if you’re lucky, the hourglass will let you change them. I keep the money either way.”
“I’m a drunk and a screw-up,” said Mark, “and I’m taking a good woman down. Nothing can fix that. I don’t care about the past, I need a new future. Everyone’s got problems – what’re yours?”
No one had asked the Keeper about his life before. “Well,” he began, “I’m the Keeper of the hourglass, and I move from town to town and see if it will help people.”
“Sounds like fun,” said Mark.
The Keeper brought out the hourglass and turned it over. Down and down ran the blue sand. Finally, it reached the end. Slowly, it started to flow upwards. When it reached the top, both Mark and the Keeper disappeared, but Mark reappeared on the Keeper’s side of the table.
When the next person entered the tent, Mark took her money, and said “Tell me your problems.”
Outside, Jennie left to see the animals. Much later, when she couldn’t find Mark, she started to worry. She went back to the tent, but it was gone. Even though the Sheriff was called, Mark was never found. In due course, a court granted Jennie a divorce on the basis of abandonment, and her life went on.
Out at the tent, Mark found a middle-aged woman waiting for him. I’ve got time for one last customer.
Once at the table, Mark began. “Tell me your troubles.”
“My life’s a mess,” she said. “I hate my husband and my daughter can’t stand me. It’s my third marriage, and I don’t think I’m cut out for it. I just want a better future. What’s it like for you?”
No one had ever asked Mark about his life before. “Well, I’m always travelling, taking the hourglass to see if it will help people.”
“Always by yourself?” said the woman. “Sounds wonderful to me.”
Mark put the hourglass on the table and the sand slowly ran down. Once it finished, it reversed and when the sand reached the top, both Mark and the woman disappeared. The woman reappeared on the other side of the table, ready for the next client.
Once again, Mark was at the fair, outside the tent. Jennie and the baby were next to him. “I want to see the hourglass,” he said to Jennie.
“Five dollars is too much! We can’t afford some phony fortune teller.”
Mark stood there, one hand on his wallet, wondering what he should do. He looked over at Jennie and the baby. “I want to do this,” he said before entering the tent. Jennie waited a few minutes, then took the baby to see the animals. She never saw her husband again.
Jennie didn’t look that hard for Mark. As soon as she could, she filed for divorce and headed off to a new life, free to leave Arizona behind for a better future.
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