Categories
Science Fiction Stories

To Engage With Time

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, Oil painting, Americana,

What makes Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” painting one of his most celebrated works? Created in 1942, Nighthawks is considered the incarnation of existential art, capturing the alienation and loneliness symptomatic of modern urban life. The following story is inspired by the painting.

I mount the time machine and dial the year nineteen-forty-two. I have a keen interest in the war years. Activities like storming the beaches of Normandy are not high on my priorities list. I stay far behind the front lines. I find the study of American culture during the war years fascinating. I stay away from heavily populated cities to remain inconspicuous. You might say I’m not truly adventurous, excluding, of course, time travel and my voracious appetite for knowledge. I’m a scientist, first and foremost. As soon as I’ve perfected my time-traveling technology, I intend to unveil it in a white paper report and work with a team to use my discoveries for the betterment of mankind.

I finish entering all of the pertinent data into the onboard computer and push the launch button.  Seconds later, the machine deposits me in the small town of Independence, Ohio. On this trip, I find myself on a corner across the street from an all-night diner. My trans-spacial watch tells me it’s two-thirty in the morning. Materializing in small towns on deserted streets in the middle of the night is a proven method for avoiding stampeding crowds.

Illustration of a time machine from the story "A Lesson In Time" by David Gittlin

I’m a bit freaked out by the feeling of emptiness the town exudes. I console myself with the thought that I’ve arrived in the middle of the night and everything is closed except, it seems, the diner across the street.

Through the panoramic window, I see four people sitting at the counter inside. My curiosity peaks as I begin, once again, to study life in the past, this time eighty years ago. This morning will be different than the others in one important respect. It marks the first time I will interact with people and environments of the past. I feel that I’ve learned enough from my previous trips to take this momentous step. And, I can no longer resist the urge to relate to people instead of simply observing them.

As I cross the street, I check my reflection in the large window. I’m dressed appropriately for the era in a blue business suit and matching tie with black wingtip shoes and neatly barbered hair. I’ll blend right in. Swinging open the glass and chrome door, I enter the cafe and take a seat at the counter a measured two seats away from a man sitting by himself. 

The small diner smells of stale cigarette smoke, fresh coffee, and the faint scent of body odor from the man two seats away. To my right, half the wall is fitted with small bins containing tempting muffins, cakes, and breads.  Across the counter, a nice-looking middle-aged couple sit demurely drinking coffee. The man is wearing a gray suit with a matching hat, blue tie, and he’s smoking a chesterfield unfiltered cigarette. The pack lying by his hand on the counter tells me the cigarette brand. The man looks like a lawyer or a doctor. The woman is wearing a green silken cocktail dress. It sets off her blazing red hair nicely. By the looks of the two-carat diamond ring on her hand, I figure the couple is well-off and married.  I suppose the couple is drinking coffee to sober up for the drive home after a festive dinner party.

“My name’s Kendall,” he says in a friendly tone.” I wonder if it’s his first or last name. I happen to hate my first name. Who names their kid Saul forty years after the war? It would be a good name for my grandfather. Not for me.

“And I’m Allison,” the woman next to him says.

I’m surprised by the couple’s friendliness. Maybe it’s the late hour and the intimate setting. Maybe people here are friendlier to strangers than they usually are in the other the small towns I’ve visited. Maybe–just maybe–this will be easier than I thought it would be.

Illustration of time travel from the story "A Lesson In Time" by David Gittlin

“My name’s Saul,” I say to the couple. “Nice to meet you.” I turn to the man next to me, half-expecting him to introduce himself. It suddenly occurs to me that the guy hasn’t moved a muscle since I came through the door.

“Ignore him,” Kendall says. “He’s just part of the scenery.”

“I’m sorry for that unkind remark,” I say to the motionless man. He’s heavy-set, dressed in a brownish green striped suit, and looks every bit like a non-descript traveling salesman.

I turn back to the man named Kendall. “If that was a joke, I don’t think it’s funny. People have feelings. Didn’t your mother teach you that?”

The last thing I want to do is get into an argument with these people, but I can’t help saying something.

“You don’t have to worry about his feelings,” Kendall says.

“And what do you think?” I ask Allison. On closer examination, she looks uncannily like Julianne Moore in her role as Clarice Starling in the sequel to “The Silence of the Lambs.”

“Allison is new,” Kendall replies. “She’s still in training. She’s not supposed to talk much.”

“Wait a minute,” I say. “Who are you people?”

Kendall leans down and pulls a strapped leather briefcase from below the counter. He extracts a file, opens it, and begins reading.

“Let’s see. Saul Grossman, age thirty-two, engineer/designer employed by Raytheon Technologies, assigned to jet engine development, invented and now operates a time machine in his spare time. Does that about cover it, Saul?”

I am beyond shocked. Fear and anger compete to control me. Somehow, I manage not to panic. I don’t want to hear the answer to my next question, but I have to ask.

“How do you know so much about me?”

“You’ve been on our radar,” Kendall says. “Now that you’ve decided to interact with the past, it’s time for us to step in.”

I’m still in shock, but a ray of hope may be peaking through the gathering storm clouds. “Are you time lords, or some sort of benevolent time control agency from the future?”

“Sorry to disappoint, Saul. We’re your local branch office of the NSA. We made some adjustments to your time machine after reading your time journal in which you wrote, ‘I’m now confident that I can interact with the past to make the present better.'”

“So, you broke into my house without my knowledge or consent.”

“That’s about the size of it,” Kendal confirms.

I feel my intestines start to melt. “What sort of ‘adjustments’ are we talking about?”

“For starters, we’re not in the past. We’re in a computer simulation where the only thing that’s real is you.”

I try to imagine how this can be happening. Am I talking to naked human bodies floating in an electrochemical solution inside giant Pyrex glass tubs? Are they fitted with electrodes attached to their heads to facilitate thought-transference-voice-activation to their virtual avatars? Or is it a cutting-edge holographic computer program capable of interacting with a real-live me?

I reach into my pocket to push the button on my remote control extractor. I’m not going to stand still for this. Literally. I’ll be out of here and back in good old 2021 in no time–or a few seconds.

Nothing happens.

I try again. Still nothing.

“I forgot to mention we disabled your extractor,” Kendall says with a cheeky wink of an eye.

“So now what?”

“Now you stay here for the rest of your natural born existence, my friend.”

“You’re kidding. Right?

“Afraid not, Saul.”

“You can’t do this.”

“Would you rather be thrown in jail?”

“On what grounds?”

Kendall takes the last sip of his coffee. “We’ll think of something. It won’t be pretty.”

“I can’t believe this.”

“It’s an unfortunate situation, Saul. You’ve become a danger to yourself and the rest of us. You played with fire, and now you’re burned. The good news is we know how to use your technology better than you would have used it.”

Kendall grabs the briefcase and guides Allison to the front door. Before they leave, Kendall and Allison wave goodbye. “Have some fun,” Kendall says. “You’re an inventive guy.”

“Don’t leave. Please.”

“We’ll check back with you in another thirty years, if you’re still around,” Allison says with a cheerful smile.

Outside the door, I watch Kendall and Allison dissolve into ghostly vapors, then disperse into thin air.

The Time Travel Spiral

Categories
Stories

Grain Burgers and the Door to the Infinite

The moment arrived unannounced during a set of solitary yoga postures on my plush, living room rug.  A long stretch to relieve the tension of the day popped something open inside me.  It was not a ligament or a tendon.  It was my hardened heart.

In the Hollywood version of the story, the hero manages to crawl to the phone, call 911, and then wakes up in a hospital bed after a miraculous, life-saving operation by a brilliant, open-heart surgeon.  The experience impresses upon our hero a number of crucial life lessons.  After the crisis, the hero’s character and actions towards others change profoundly for the better.

Unfortunately, life does not resemble a Hollywood B movie.  My physical heart had not split open while in shoulder stand on the rug.  A more subtle heart had opened, and with it, a door to a new world and another destiny.

It all started with Jorge, the new employee I would never have invited to lunch if my regular lunch buddies had not run off without me.  Jorge was Mexican, the only Latin guy on in the executive suite of a wallpaper distribution company that hired mostly Anglo-Americans when Miami’s transformation into a multi-cultural city had begun in earnest in 1981.

Jorge was in his early thirties, average looking, average height, dark hair, brown eyes, and a thin mustache.  He was the kind of guy who could get lost in a crowd easily.  I had no idea his unheralded arrival would trigger a seminal occurrence in my life.

My company hired Jorge for its fledgling export division.  Jorge’s mission was to open up markets in South America and the Caribbean (approximately one quarter of the world) all by himself.  He had the ability to speak Spanish and, I presumed, super-human sales skills coupled with a pioneering spirit.  I didn’t envy Jorge one bit.

I considered myself above Jorge.  I was the high and mighty Marketing Director—Jorge the lowly new sales recruit.  I had served my time in sales.  I was grateful beyond words not to have to spend my days selling wallpaper sample books to dealers who had no more room in their stores for them.  I figured, if nothing else, I could learn something about the export market by going to lunch with the new recruit.  Besides, Jorge was the only soul left on the second floor other than myself.

Jorge suggested we eat at a quiet, natural food restaurant in Miami Springs.  My lunch prospects had just been elevated from a singular, fatty, McDonald’s affair to a tasty, low cholesterol engagement.  I happily agreed.

Over salads and grain burgers, I discovered Jorge was a vegetarian and practiced meditation daily.  Here was a subject I had some interest in, having experimented with various forms and teachers of meditation over the years.  You might say I was a semi-serious spiritual seeker.  And, I had reached a curious crossroads, a sort of impasse in my life.

I had everything a thirty-something American male could wish for: the perfect job in a field I enjoyed; a great boss; a townhouse bachelor pad; girlfriends, a few pals to hang out with; a sports car and club memberships.  I had scrupulously followed the prescribed formulas for success.  I had cobbled together many of the accouterments of an ideal life.

Yet I felt restless and unfulfilled.

I was terrified there was something terribly wrong with me.  I felt the cold winds of middle age blowing in my direction.  I saw myself dating one girl after another well into my eighties, until I finally abandoned the search for true love when my body and spirit caved in from old age.

There I was, sitting across from this lowly new recruit munching on his iceberg lettuce.  He casually mentioned losing 80 pounds after becoming a vegetarian.  I commented that it must have taken a great deal of willpower.  He answered, “Not really.”

I began to pepper Jorge with questions.  The guy was unlike many of the salespeople in our company I regularly rubbed elbows with.  He had a depth and an intensity that I found intriguing.

I asked Jorge what kind of meditation he practiced.  He said it was not a “kind of meditation.”  He launched into a passionate discourse about a profound experience of peace the meditation opened up for him.  He invited me to a presentation scheduled at a hotel on Miami Beach that evening.  I told myself there was no way I was going to drive all the way from South Miami to the Beach to attend some dubious spiritual seminar.

That night, I found myself sitting in a lime green, orange accented meeting room at the Carlyle Hotel.

Curiosity—and some undefinable vibe emanating from between Jorge’s words at lunch had picked me up from the chocolate brown pit sofa in my living room and deposited me in an uncomfortable chair surrounded by a room full of strangers.

Indian music played from six-foot speakers flanking a makeshift stage.  The only thing that kept me in my seat was the absence of Hare-Krishna-like chanting.

I glanced to my left and caught a glimpse of Jorge, who smiled kindly at me.  Someone took the stage and began speaking into a microphone.

The Indian Music and the microphone are the only details I recall after the program began.  My perspective slowly shifted from an external focus to a pleasant inner experience.

A succession of three speakers addressed the gathering that evening.  I do not recall a single word any one of them said.  I just remember feeling relaxed.  I had an experience that can only be described as feeling at home with myself.

For the first time in a very long while, I had actually enjoyed myself without a great deal of effort or alcohol to help me along.  I felt like an invisible hand had knocked off a layer of caked mud from my body.

It is difficult for me to describe what happened after that evening.  I can only say that it marked the beginning of a long journey that lasts to this day, to this very moment.

In the days and weeks after the event at the Carlyle Hotel, I met Jorge’s teacher, who essentially introduced me to myself.  I thought I knew myself pretty well.  I began to see that the image I held of myself was only a faint glimmer of a deeper, broader self, filled with possibilities.

Many years later, my life remains full of challenges, but I face them with real joy and optimism.  I have discovered that life can be every bit as beautiful as you want it to be.  It takes some courage and effort, but the possibility is real for anyone willing to step up to the plate.

I look inward now for satisfaction, rather than chasing it on the outside.  I shake hands with myself on a daily basis through meditation.  I feel more grounded.  I feel more love from within, which reflects positively into my outer life.

It occurs to me that I should have picked up the tab for Jorge’s lunch.  Jorge, my friend, if you’re out there somewhere and can read this, please know that I owe you one.