Time as an Opened Letter You Didn’t Want to Read
“I can turn back time,” my father says, or he will say. He will tell me that he will save my mother who died when I was just a child. He will say this, or he has already said this, or he is saying it right now.
This morning, I was a simple man with a simple life and a simple job as an accountant. My life was scheduled hourly, and there was never any question of where I was supposed to be when. But now time is fractured and I have seeped through all the cracks. I find myself in a business meeting with J about my father’s new invention at the same time I’m deep-sea fishing the Gulf with my father, who, as usual, is barely aware I’m there. I am a child again, meeting yet another fly-by-night stepmother-to-be at the same time I’m in Dallas watching JFK’s parade, an event that happened before I was born. I know what the real when is, because I know the blending of time happened today, but those terms are rapidly losing their meaning as time scrambles itself like an egg.
Even right now in the nowest of nows, in the midst of talking with J about patents and business plans, I am also in the Intensive Care Unit standing beside my father, wires sprawling on the floor like spilled spaghetti and everything smelling of antiseptic null. My nose is scoured of scent. J finishes a joke and his face wrinkles in the beginning of a laugh, but even as I hear his voice rise, it is mixed with the sound of nurses washing their hands, torrents of dirty water swirling through an aluminum basin.
The heart machine’s tubes stick into my father’s chest with the awkward beauty of an octopus’ arms. The tubes pulse slightly with every pump.
“I’m sorry,” I say automatically, without regret, the same way my father apologized to me for years without ever looking me in the eyes.
The pumped blood turns from red to a brighter red, then dulls.
J’s face darkens slightly, then smooths into a white sail.
“It’s okay,” he says. “I don’t expect everyone to get the joke.”
There are a hundred other moments I’m living, but these two stick into me like hooks in a fish’s mouth. J, waiting for me to pronounce on my father’s intellectual property. And my father, waiting for a priest to pronounce last rites.
My dad is swaddled in bandages. His eyes are covered with jelly to keep the staring eyeballs moist. I shut my eyes and focus on J’s office, but I can still hear the subtle beep of the heart monitor, the suck of the pump, the intercom crackling in some other room.
My father is an inventor of the old school, of the purest sort. He is more a philosopher than a scientist, seeing technology as the means towards plumbing the depths of the human heart rather than a method for making money or for improving society. An idealist.
“And what do you want to do with your father’s blueprints?” J says. The ends of his mouth turn up, predatory. He’s been our family’s financial advisor for as long as I can remember, a friend of my father’s from when they were in school, latching onto genius, and hoping that it would pay off. I am a child in his office, and he hands me a lollipop. “I wish I had a son just like you,” he says.
As J’s excitement grows, his ears turn scarlet. Normally a handsome man, now he looks like a troll. He knows my father had a breakthrough, and he’s waiting to hear what it is. He’s waiting to tally up his profits. He’s waiting to put a payment towards that yacht. He’ll still be waiting years from now.
This morning, as my father called to tell me the good news, I listened to him in my office at the same time I was in the alley behind my condo burning all of my father’s notes and designs and blueprints in a garbage can half-filled with garbage. The smell of burning paper and rot made my mouth water. I didn’t know why I was burning his things, but I could feel in my gut that it was the right thing to do. The necessary thing.
At my long silence, J’s smile cracks to reveal uneasiness.
“Send the blueprints to the patent lawyer, of course,” I say, standing. “I’ll send copies once I get the originals from my father.” I pat J on the back. We’re co-conspirators in the world of business, and though he nods in agreement now, he’s also snarling at me from behind the bars. Except I’m the one behind bars.
It was exactly a minute before my father called me that I found myself in two places at once. His voice was ecstatic – a minute before, he’d completed his invention – full of a life and a confidence I hadn’t seen from him for years. He hadn’t been so happy since the birth of my sister.
Except I don’t have a sister.
“Oh God,” he said. “Now I’m a god.”
He says the same thing in the delivery room, my sister in hand, my mother beaten into a stupor by labor, nurses cleaning up their prostrate bodies, and the doctor the only one noticing business-suited me in the corner of the room, my mouth agape in wonder. Before he can blink, I am gone.
I barely knew my mother. She died when I was three, sideswiped from the sidewalk by a bus with a blown tire on her way home from the grocery store. But I recognize that woman in the hospital bed from the family albums, even if she’s older than the pictures, older than the girl of twenty-seven who died out of my life so long ago.
Now I’m a man of forty, responsible for my own affairs and my father’s. I pay my bills on time and float a responsible amount of debt. I’m not religious. I believe in what I can see and hold. I believe in history, and the fact that our past is what molds us, continually, into who we are.
Now I am walking up the front walk of my father’s house. Instinctively, I step over the concrete raised up by the roots of the oak tree that I had removed five years past as a hazard. There’s a scar on my chin from when I tripped on that concrete for the first and last time when I was ten.
Now I am in the shower washing the blood from my body. It comes off easily.
Now I am in the Intensive Care Unit, but I am also still in the shower. I am naked and wet before my father’s dying body, also naked and wet. Water pools on the floor beneath me. A nurse screams, and her screams echo in the shower.
I am in all of these places at once, and none of them for certain. I can sense the distance I am from the hospital bed while I step up to my father’s door. It is growing harder and harder to focus on exactly who I am and when I want to be, but I am learning small tricks. If I bite the inside of my cheek, the pain brings me back to the now I need to be in, back to the me that is pressing the doorbell on my father’s house a little too forcefully. Even so, I can sense all the other places I am. If I look away, I know I’ll be standing before the chair that is waiting for me to be strapped in it.
A car honks, and I turn to see M, a childhood friend, wave as he drives by. But when I turn back I am in my father’s laboratory. He is removing his new invention from its protective case. I need to explain to him what he has done. But then my mouth drops open.
“You invented a gun?” I’m amazed. My father doesn’t believe in violence. When I asked him what he felt when mom died, he’d told me he simply felt sorry for the bus driver and all the passengers, having to witness such horror.
But it just appears to be a death ray or freeze beam, because my father isn’t crazy. He’s just a little misguided.
“With this,” he says, “I can turn back time. Well, if time could be turned, which it can’t because time isn’t a sphere or a circle or even a line. It’s a point. And with this I’ll be able to see all points at once.”
“And how is this supposed to make us money?” I ask.
“This is more important than money,” he says. “With this I’ll be able to save your mother. Don’t you want to meet your mother?”
“Dad, you can’t change history,” I say.
He doesn’t argue. All of his excitement falls away to reveal desperation and disgust.
“You never cared about me,” he says. “All you cared about was what I could give you. But I’ll bring your mother back! And then everything will be as it should have been.”
He turns the invention on himself, but I leap forward and grab the tip and pull it away. He pulls the trigger and the end of his invention glows with an unearthly light, the tip emitting a beam which slams into me with all the force of a feather.
My father’s eyes are wide with alarm, but I’m fine. Nothing’s changed.
But everything has changed. The moment my father finished the invention, this event was destined to happen, and when it did I was shaken from the fixed timeline of my life like water from a dog’s back. As soon as it would happen, it did happen. But only now do I fully understand.
I can see the future where everyone is lost in time, everywhen at once. History is a water-soaked tissue, transparent and fragile, and if you pick it up, it falls apart. And for one final moment, I am at my 41st birthday party and my mother and my sister and, yes, even my father, are watching me blow out the candles with joy and pride and –
– and I am there in my father’s laboratory and I am burning his notes and I am dismantling his invention and I am at his death bed and I am facing the electric chair and all because time cannot be changed. It will not be changed. I won’t let it be changed.
I ring the doorbell to my father’s house. When my father opens the door he grins so fiercely I’m afraid he might pull a muscle. It is the happiest he’s been to see me in a long, long time. He doesn’t suspect the knife until its already deep, deep inside him.
He looks into my eyes, but he isn’t shocked. It’s as though he is seeing me – the real me – for the first time.
But we both know that’s a lie.