Let's try something different today, shall we? No non-fiction. No humor essay. No pop culture rant or reading list. This week, you get a short story. I've been working on this for a bit, and I'd love to know what you think. Give it a read if you've got the time and inclination.
HARVEY MISUSES HIS TIME MACHINE
My name is Harvey Cush. I invented time travel on Wednesday, October 16th, during the weekly staff meeting. I suppose you’ll want to know how it happened. I’d just like to say for the record that you wanting to know this equals you missing the point. Who cares how it happened? It happened. What you should be wondering is why aren’t you reading about it in some fancy schmancy Journal of Science Filled with Words Nobody Understands or on FOX News. Why are you learning about the invention of time travel from sheets of yellow legal paper crammed into a thermos that just washed ashore?
Crap, at least I hope it washed ashore. I hope you’re not some shipwrecked asshole in a bright orange dinghy out in the middle of the Atlantic. If that’s the case, would you mind putting the pages back in the thermos and giving them a toss in a westerly direction? If you don’t know which way that is ... well, then you are truly screwed. I’d put the flare gun in my mouth if I were you.
But, let’s just assume it washed ashore somewhere it can do some good. Somewhere warm and pretty. Someplace where they make drinks in coconuts and young, pretty college girls take morning walks on the beach to work off that hangover. And that’s where you come in. See, I took one writing class 20 years ago, and the only thing I got out of it was that you should always write to one person. One specific person. That’s your reader. So, I’m assuming you are a young, pretty college co-ed from somewhere in the Ivy League. Or at least the Big Ten. God help me if you’re studying fashion design at a community college. Yeah, I’m gonna go ahead and hope for the best here. Your name is something like Kennedy or Spencer. That’s you. You’re my reader.
And here you are, gearing up for another night of questionable decision making when you stumble across my thermos in a pile of kelp and stuff that’s just washed ashore. You open it up, deal with the major bummer of it being filled with paper instead of schnapps, and put your education to use reading the yellow sheets. And, in the best possible scenario, that’s when the question you should be asking starts filling that pretty head of yours.
If this guy invented time travel, why did he write his story down and throw it into the ocean? That’s a good question, Spencer. Keep reading.
The day I invented time travel was a pretty typical day at work. I was stuck in the weekly staff meeting. My supervisor – whose name I hereby omit not to protect him but because he does not deserve a historical record of his useless, dick-faced existence – was being very adamant about something to do with market share and demographic penetration. Normally I would have sniggered at the word ‘penetration’ but this particular staff meeting had made me miss Ice Cream Sandwich Day in the 3rd floor break room so I was in no fucking mood. Instead, I was doodling on my yellow legal pad and trying to figure out the minutes I had left until retirement next year. 3-D boxes and solitaire tic-tac-toe for a while, and then just a furious, scribbled circle. I was trying to see how many loops it would take to rip the paper. Like that owl in the tootsie roll pop commercial from the ‘80s. The black ink swirls were piling on top of each other as my pen went around and around and around. I wasn’t even looking down at the pad at this point. I was staring out the window at the rain, trying to remember the lyrics to that one Michael Bolton song – you know, that one about love – when it happened.
My stomach did a little flip, like I just ate fish tacos purchased from a guy at the bus stop. There was a pop in my ears and a tug against my bellybutton and everything around me rippled like water after a stone’s been skipped. My twirling hand on the notepad blurred and duplicated, a ghost hand continuing to draw even as I lifted the tip of my pen off the paper and looked up at my idiot-asshole boss for the first time in 45 minutes.
“We need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to lock down our market share,” dick-face was saying. “Also, I’m very adamant that we ensure our demographic penetration.”
I sniggered to myself at that. Penetration.
Do you see what happened there?
Cause at first I didn’t. See, I’ve never been a big déjà vu guy. As far as I’m concerned, people get the feeling that they’ve experienced a moment already because they have. A lifetime of Mondays and Fridays. An endless loop of weekends spent mowing the lawn while listening to the ball game. The nights where the arthritis hurts and the nights it doesn’t. Taco night after taco night. Even the birthdays blur together once you’ve passed the 21st and there’s nothing new to celebrate – and I’m a long way past the 21st. So of course people think, I’ve seen this episode of ‘CSI’ before, or, This tater tot hotdish sure tastes familiar. Because we live the same dozen days over and over.
Things were certainly that way for me. This weekly staff meeting was just like every other weekly staff meeting. The same dry cake donuts that only the fat people eat – and they only eat them out of the obligation that exists between fat people and pastries. The same burned coffee. The same corporate jargon. But this particular jargon was too new. Too fresh. Not a week old, but minutes. At that’s when I glanced down at my notepad. There were the 3-D boxes. There was the tic-tac-toe. And there was the angry black circle. But smaller, diminished. Either someone had taken an eraser to my pen marks or ...
Or I, Harvey Cush, had just traveled back in time.
There was no confetti. No sirens sounding or balloons falling. Nobody cheered. Nobody even noticed. But then, that’s probably how it always goes. I doubt there were any ticker tape parades tromping past Steve Jobs’ garage. Nobody gave George Foreman a Nobel for knocking out the fat. And so the moment of invention passed in an oblivious rush for everyone in the room but me. For me, that moment changed everything. It fixed me. It broke me. And I’m getting ahead of things again. Sorry, Kennedy.
After the initial rush of invention had passed, I set about duplicating the conditions. What had I been doing? I asked myself this over and over. But, hard as I tried, I couldn’t pull up the memory. If you’ve ever tried to remember what you had for dinner two Tuesdays ago, you’ll know how I felt. Unable to recall something that should be so easy to recall. It hovered just out of my reach, the memory fading in and out of focus with maddening pace. It wasn’t until much later that I realized why. A realization that would be kinda key to all this. See, I couldn’t remember the moment because the moment hadn’t happened yet. Not really. But, I found that if I pushed every other thought out of my mind I could hone in on the thing I was looking for. And all of a sudden, like breaking through the surface of the water and taking a desperate, gasping breath, it all came rushing back.
I had been looking out the window. I’d been watching the drips of rainwater trace jagged, darting paths down the window glass. I’d been singing Michael Bolton songs in my head. And I’d been tracing this circle.
I, Harvey Cush, was still seated at the table, but now my yellow legal pad sat in front of me, empty. There was another Harvey Cush standing at the refreshments table, pouring himself a cup of burned coffee.
I had it now.
See, there were rules to this time travel stuff. Very specific, very precise rules. And it wasn’t like it came with an instruction manual. Hell, even IKEA gives you pictures of a bald man frustrated by a hammer while you’re trying to assemble your Tåpêrfüňgenđuģaldœrg bookshelf. But for time travel? Nothing. I, Harvey Cush, had to discover the rules of time travel on my own. And I discovered that there are 4 rules. I share them with you here for reasons that will soon become clear.
You don’t get to live it. You just get to watch it.
This takes a lot of the fun out of it. It’s like watching a slideshow of your friend’s vacation photos. Visit the Tower of London and you’ll find yourself muttering, “Holy shit.” Look at a picture of someone visiting the Tower of London and you say, “Who gives a shit?” It’s the same way with your life.
But that’s not the worst of it.
See, my legs are going. Not because of some disease, just because they are. Because that’s sometimes what happens after 60 years. A walker is in my immediate future. Probably a chair not long after that. Which is why the first place I went once I got the hang of this whole time travel thing was Wheeler Field, 1963.
I have always loved baseball. Love watching it, love listening to it, and most of all love playing it. Loved playing it. I haven’t played in 40 years and I haven’t been any good at playing in 50. 12 years old, that was the sweet spot for me. That was the age where I had mastered cracking sunflower seeds and spitting them into the fresh-cut grass and smacking my free hand against the leather of my glove and shouting smack talk. It also happened to be the age I got my first – and only – home run. 1963.
I swear to God, all I wanted was one more chance to see that pitch. To feel my bat connect with it. The way it sent a new, dazzling ripple up my arms. Letting me know that this was different. This was special. I just wanted one more chance to watch that gleaming white ball leave my bat and streak across the blue June sky. And more than anything, I just wanted one more trip around the bases on strong, steady legs.
But you don’t get to live it. You just get to watch it.
There’s something profoundly lonely about this type of time travel (the only type of time travel, as far as I know). The type you witness, but don’t inhabit. The kind that makes you a ghost in your own life. You know how your own voice sounds weird when you hear it? Your own life is a thousand times more detached and foreign when you see it. It feels like dying.
I’ve never been more lonely in my life than when I was traveling back through it. And I’ve been plenty lonely. For proof, look no further than whom I chose to share my invention with. Not family. Not friends. Not my wife, God rest her soul.
You’re all I’ve got, Spencer.
You pick the moment. Not the date.
This rule goes in the plus column, I guess. It kinda-sorta makes up for Rule One. Can you imagine if you had to pick the date you wanted to relive – sorry, revisit? Maybe you have more of a calendar mind, Spenc, but mine is shaped around experiences. If I could only travel to dates I would have been stuck with a bunch of birthdays and holidays. Fixed, immovable dates. Ones that tend to be filled with drunk uncles and bickering parents. Toy cars I didn’t get and socks I did. There’s not a lot of Christmas mornings I’m itching to see again. The good days, the ones that matter, they are scattered through life with baffling randomness. Like the day I got that raise. Or the day I quit the first in what would sadly become a long line of shit jobs. The day I saw the Stones in concert. The day I made my wife laugh so hard she threw up all over our dinner. They’re moments. Not a list of days on the calendar.
I can’t tell you the date I took her to see the Grand Canyon, but I can tell you exactly how her eyes sparkled as she watched that hawk soar over Mather Point.
There’s no going forward. Only back.
It turns out that time travel is a one-way street. No left turns on Memory Lane. At least you get to pick the spots you stop. Sure, I’d like to know how much longer people let that fucking Price is Right stay on the air. I’d like to see if they ever make another Look Who’s Talking. I’d like to see just how I was supposed to die. But that’s not an option. You go back and that’s that. You can spin that pen around as quick as you can, sing that Steel Bars with all your might. But you’re not popping past the present.
Let me pump the brakes a second, here.
So, by now you’ve probably done your own test spin, huh? Grabbed a pen and made a circle in the corner of one of these sheets of paper. Tried to remember the lyrics to How Am I Supposed To Live Without You. Thought about your sweet sixteen or that time you snuck a bottle of booze out of your folks’ cabinet and drank it on the beach with your best friend. Closed your eyes and waited for the Pop.
Didn’t work, did it?
Yeah, sorry about that. I left out a step or two. And I did that on purpose. Like when the Discovery Channel won’t tell you exactly how to make that bomb from bits of tires and gasoline. They do it for your own good. Me too.
We’ve only covered the first three rules. We’ve got one more to go. And once you really take in this last rule, you’ll realize the reward ain’t worth the risk. Sure, you could stop reading right now (who knows, maybe you already have), but I need you to learn this last rule. I need to make sure that what happened to me doesn’t happen to others. Even if the others I save are just you. Because I stumbled across this time travel thing. It was an accident. I’m sure it had something to do with me being miserable in my present. And truthfully that might be all it takes. You just have to hate your now enough to gain access to your then. And that’s when the trouble starts.
You Can’t Stay
I know because I tried.
I tried to stay in the moment I first met her. That afternoon in spring where I was trying to impress some other girl whose name I don’t even remember. Too busy bullshitting my way through a conversation about a book I hadn’t read to see her until the last possible second. I didn’t need to invent time travel to remember how my mouth went totally, fantastically dry. How my hands felt like I’d spent all night sleeping on them. How every single thought in my brain was overtaken by one simple command:
Marry that girl.
I tried to stay in our honeymoon. Not the moments you’d think, though there were plenty of those. No, I wanted to stay in the airport on our way to the honeymoon, where bad weather got our flight delayed for hours. Where I spent the first of our wedding money – the first money that was ours, not mine – on a bag of stale pretzels and an orange juice to split. Because back then we were so poor. And it didn’t matter. And hours flew by in minutes as we sat on those stiff concourse chairs across from our gate taking turns reading Catcher In The Rye to each other. The book that, until that moment, had been my favorite book. Because I was Holden Caulfield. The sole voice of reason in a world full of phonies. Until I met a woman who didn’t lose her brains when she got passionate. A woman who had brains to spare. Spare enough to loan some to me. To show me there was plenty to love in the world, even while I was busy hating the rest of it.
I got desperate then. Desperate to stay. I tried next to plant myself in the doctor’s office the day she got the diagnosis. Willing to see those tears stream down her flushed cheeks forever as long as I could watch myself hold her hand. Listen to her make me promise that I would live a good, happy life. Promise her over and over again. Tell her I wouldn’t wallow. Wouldn’t give up. Would move on.
But I couldn’t stay.
Not in the hospital room, either. Not even in that moment. The worst of them all. I would have, for the record. If it had been allowed. I would have watched her hollow face, carved and eroded to the point of skeletal. Stared into her vacant, unseeing eyes. Listened to her beg over and over, all through the night:
Help me. Oh, God, please help me.
I would have stayed there. Gladly. Because she was there. Barely, yes. But there.
But, see, you can’t stay.
I even tried to stay in the days after she died. Because I was still waking up forgetting that she was gone. And those fleeting moments in the morning where she was alive and well and making eggs downstairs were worth every bit of pain when reality came crashing back in. It was a thousand times better than the numbness I’ve been stuck in ever since. I would have lived there forever if I could.
But you can’t stay.
And that brings us very near the end. Both for these pages and for me.
A wise man once said, “Time flows like a river and it seems as if each of us is carried relentlessly along by time’s current.” Well, I’m here to tell you that Mr. Stephen Hawking is full of shit. Time is not a river. Time is a rapids. Sure, most of the time it pushes your forward, relentless. The sheer speed of it blurring most moments of your life into white water as you are pushed ever faster, ever forward toward the finish. Toward the falls. But every so often the current slows. And it seems like you’ll be young and invincible forever, or like that meeting will never fucking end. Sometimes it even seems to stop. And you soak in your first kiss or pray for an end to the pain. Yet it only seems that way. It’s an illusion. The current of time is always pushing you forward. Moments come and moments go. For most creatures great and small, there are nothing but these moments. Life is nothing but the present.
But, the human race is blessed with the ability to remember.
It's also cursed with it.
We may be dragged through that current toward a present always bobbing just in front of us, but we are able to remember the moments that came before this one.
Both the good and the bad.
So thank God or Allah or whoever made us because He also made it so that our memory lies to us. It tells us we were smarter, thinner, more attractive, less afraid. Better. If we actually saw things as they had happened, we would never get out of the current.
We live the same dozen days over and over again. Except for when we don’t. And those rare bright moments in a life of work and worry don’t add up to a lot of days. So our memory does its job and makes those moments brighter, sharper, more vivid. Makes those moments last longer. Slows that current each time we think back to those happy handful of days that make a simple, boring life so fucking worth it.
And at first it may seem like the greatest gift, having the power to go back and see these moments in exact, precise detail any time you wished. But you can’t stay in these moments. And each time you revisit them, you care less and less about your present. And even less about your future. You realize those good moments make up such a small percentage of your life, that you’d rather hop from good memory to good memory forever than slog through the bulk of your rote, inconsequential years to make a few new ones.
If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t. We aren’t supposed to live in the past. We are supposed to struggle forward. We are supposed to believe that our greatest days are just around this bend. The good moments and the bad moments are supposed to wear and weather, grow fainter and fainter.
You are supposed to keep swimming, Spencer.
That’s why I won’t tell you how the rubber and gasoline actually makes the bomb. Because I don’t want you to end up like me. I know it’s not much, this final act of mine, shoving my story into a thermos and heaving it into the surf, but I had to do something. I had to warn someone. Because this isn’t how I was supposed to die. I don’t actually know how I was supposed to die, thanks to Rule Three. But this is how I’m choosing to die, now.
Because Rule Four won’t let me keep her.
Because Rule Three won’t let me see if I ever get over losing her.
And I’m tired of all this treading water.
I lied to my wife. I didn’t know I was doing it at the time but how can I live a happy life without her in it? I’m wallowing, darling. I’m drowning, darling.
And now I’m giving up.
I broke the last promise I made her. And I’m sorry.
But I’m taking my chances that there’s something at the end of the river. After the falls. Beyond the rocks. Someplace calm, cool and quiet. Someplace where she’s waiting for me.
And if she’s there, I hope she can forgive me for not keeping my promise.