I got to taking with a physicist friend of mine; I’ll call him “Joe”. We have a great relationship because I am his intellectual equal and he can bounce ideas off me as he can with only a very few people. By our third diet coke we were a little amped and Joe started going on about the Lense-Thirring Effect and Closed Timelike Curves, a line of discussion we’d touched on before. We started lazily sketching on a napkin and within a week we had built what is popularly known as a time machine. It achieves its effects through a common relativistic phenomenon known to math hotshots as Frame-Dragging. For reasons known only to our Danny Kaye-like Creator, when massive objects rotate they drag spacetime around them, twisting the surrounding real estate in such a way that not only are tremendous potential energies produced as the spacetime is torqued, space effectively bends back on itself too, creating what’re called “closed timelike curves” and the theoretical possibility of traveling through time. It was agreed that I would subject myself to the effects of the completed machine, becoming the first man in human history to be hurled backward in time through a knothole, or whatever they’re called.
I elected to go back to visit my 9 year-old self. At that age my fascination with the future was peaking. I read comic books voraciously and hurriedly built Revell models of jet airplanes and spaceships, my raised thumbprints mottling the gray surfaces of my flying machines in smeared Testor’s model cement. These small harbingers of my future manual ineptitude I hung from my ceiling with brown twine. How great would it be to go back to myself at 9 years old, reveal myself as Future Jeff and report on the ACTUAL future? Joe and I discussed Novikov’s Self-Consistency Principle and decided nothing I could say or do back there would produce any causal paradoxes. If I was going back in time next Monday, I had always been going back in time next Monday.
We designed the machine so that my quantum insertion into the past would happen as gently and as unobtrusively as possible. In the event, when I materialized in my old room I was announced by a bursting plume of green smoke and a sound like sheet tin being cut with a buzz saw; Margaret Hamilton in a meth nightmare. Jeffry jumped out of bed with a girlish scream and began a panicked running in place in his Davy Crockett footie pajamas, flapping his little hands in abject terror. Embarrassing. “Ssshh! Ssshh!!” I gestured calmness, an orchestra conductor damping the violins, my right hand knocking askance a hanging LTV A-7D CORSAIR ll, a modernist jet at the time which I’d elected to paint sky blue. Oh, yeah. That Jeffry. By the by, little noodle-man calmed down, staring at me as I stared both at him and at my old room. He scooted his tiny little ass up onto the edge of his bed, his pipe-cleaner legs dangling, clad in a motif of coonskin caps and tomahawks. Had I really ever left this place? And why? Momentarily he put it together. “You’re me,” he said.
I took a breath. “Yeah.”
“You’re…from the future.”
“Right.” I was stuck for stuff to say.
“Language, Jeff!” I barked, then caught myself in a fit of mild dizziness. This must be the summer Gary Chapman taught me the word “crap” as an expletive, my dad laughing his ass off at the dinner table one night when I’d burst out with it. My dad.
“So, uh, listen. I wanted to come back and see you because, you know, I was always freaked about the future, what it would be like, what stuff would look like..” My stick-figured little counterpart started in, shifted his tiny pajama butt around the bed’s edge in a gesture of preparedness, his dumb little features crammed cruelly down into his lantern chin and crinkling with anticipation. “Well what’s it like? What year are you from?”
“2015,” I said falteringly. I could barely believe the sound of it as I spoke.
“2015! Holy crap!” Aw, what the hell.
“Yeah!” my stick-like little forerunner squeaked. “My sister took me to see 2001 downtown, but 2015?”
“Yeah, man. It’s very very cool. You wouldn’t believe the stuff we’ve got — “
“Flying cars! What do they look like? How fast?” I thought of a local news story I’d seen a day or so before. “Car leaves road in fiery crash. Texting suspected.”
“Yeah, we’ve got flying cars, you kidding? What’s the future without flying cars?”
He grew quiet. “What about mom and dad?”
“Dad passed in ’97. He will pass in 1997, I mean. Mom is going to … pass away in 2014.”
“Huh. 2014.” He looked down at his hands, then sneaked a look up at me. “Were you…will I be very sad?”
“Yes. Of course!”
“I know.” He reconnoitered. “Well, what do the spaceships look like? Have you been in one? Are they all over the solar system? In 2001 the airplanes fly so high they orbit the Earth. They fly all the way to the moon!” I vividly remembered the Kubrick movie and my big sister taking me downtown to see it, remembered the Space Shuttle design of the PanAm plane in the movie, the stewardess walking up the wall to serve drinks to First Class. The movie completely electrified my head jelly, especially the indecipherable, quasi-religious final reel of the movie, where the Future had been masterfully conflated with all the dizzying, indefinable wonder of a generation raised on space capsules and crewcut argonauts in flattering, sci-fi-friendly NASA pressure suits. Our space shuttles had been real enough, though I don’t know that they’d ever served cocktails aboard one of them. And anyway the shuttle program had been mothballed a couple years before, or about 45 years after debuting in Kubrick’s visionary movie. What the hell? Had I actually leaped backward in time from a Charlton Heston dystopia, a green-cracker-eating world of denuded resources and overheated cityscapes where ice becomes the new currency of the rich? Not quite. But I was starting to see the beginnings of a mothballing of all the stuff we’d dreamed about as a high-flying little 1960s bean-heads, who, while the sexual and rock revolutions and political assassinations and jungle wars raged around us, were fixated on Lost in Space and Star Trek and Fireball XL5, and just knew we were going places. But we didn’t think to screw down the lid tightly enough, and the dream shriveled, right there in the jar. I can’t lie to this kid. Maybe if he knows the score he can readjust the time flux, fiddle with the Destiny Dials, repurpose the chronosynclasticinfindibulum, as Vonnegut might suggest.
“Yaaa…uh, look, Jeff. Jeffry? We don’t have spaceships, actually. The last moon landing will happen while turtlenecks and mutton chops are still in fashion. NASA’s going to remain a pioneering outfit, but they’ll be pioneering ways to do space exploration on the cheap, dropping radiometric salt shakers on Neptune, stuff like that. They’re gonna give the spaceship-building over to a billionaire whose invention let’s us shop in our underwear. No space stations, no cloud cities, no giant robots…none of that stuff will happen by 2015. We…shifted priorities.”
“Well…whatta you guys got?” I took my Android Galaxy Edge 6 out. Android, baby!
“Have a look at that!”
“I already have an Etch-a-Sketch.”
“That’s no Etch-a-Sketch, Jeffry! That’s the future!”
He dropped off the bed and walked over. “Cool. What is it?”
“Um. It’s a phone.”
“…whaddya mean? Like a telephone?”
“Yeah. But, uh, look at all the other stuff it does.” There was no internet to speak of in ’69 so I flipped on a game. Angry Birds. He looked bored for a minute, then reached for the phone and started staring intently at the screen, trying to play. I saw the 21st century in that gesture, writ crushingly huge. “Uh, let me have that back, Jeffry. You’ll, uh, have plenty of time for this later.” He went back and sat on the bed.
“The future is a phone,” he said in a disappointed little My Three Sons voice, but petulantly. What, am I supposed to feel guilty about the flying cars?!
“The future is people, you little twerp!” I hissed. “Just like the past.”
“Jeffry!” my dad called suddenly from downstairs, and my head swam. “Hit the hay, pardner!” “Oh, Bob, leave him alone,” my mom said, as she always had. “Well, who the hell’s he talking to?” my dad said in his amused, loving voice. “He’s talking to himself!” mom said. The bean pole looked at me with a rapt expression as I listened, seated on the edge of his bed with his hands folded in his lap, watching. I could picture Bob and Aloha sitting by that lamp with the brown cork base. Somewhere, they were always alive and good naturedly sparring in the living room, sitting around that lamp. Somewhere. Is that what a continuum is? Note to self; ask “Joe”. Bob Wing had passed twenty years ago. In that way the past has of furtively moving away from us even as we think we’re hanging on to its largesse, my dad had become as remotely a piece of Yesterday as the graven image on a Lincoln penny. Jesus, to see him again. He would laugh and his face would crinkle into a squinty mask of homely hilarity. Like mine. Or vice versa. He’s here in the house, in this house! Our red brick house in Cheyenne, our white collie, Casey, probably laid out at his feet.
“Daaaad!” Jeffry called with his thin little-girl voice, and looking right at me. “Will you come up here a minute?”
“Sure!” my dad said. In the near household distance I heard him grunt lightly up and out of the tattered wingback chair he refused to have reupholstered, his feet padded to the foot of the stairs and started climbing. I hadn’t seen him climb stairs for years. He’d become somnolent late in life, no more laughter, no more talking. Alone in the tv room. I gestured. What the hell is this?! Jeffry raised his twig-like Davy Crockett arm and motioned me to the closet. Huh! I got in there and drew the door closed, grabbed the knob for support. Bob Wing made the top of the landing and lightly bounded onto hardwood, made the u-turn and began his easy lope down the long hall to my room. I looked at Jeffry through the crack in the closet door but he was out of frame. The sliver of him I could see was sitting at the bed’s edge, squirreling his little chicken butt around. Then he leaned his nondescript little face into my verticalized slot of reference. He wore that big-chinned idiot smile I’d always hated in the mirror.
“Here he comes!” he whispered urgently.
a version of this piece was