|Jared has published three books of poetry with the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. He lives in Indianapolis. His website: http://www.jaredcarter.com/|
© 2004 Jared Carter
As it turns out, there is no difficulty at all in traveling through time. I have only to take a deep breath, let it out, and feel spreading through my body and my innermost veins and arteries the warmth of the potion she has just handed me, as though it were a cup of green tea, still hot to the touch, and fragrant with steam.
I come out exactly where I had hoped: in the brick alleyway adjoining the old schoolyard, next to the corner candy store. It is spring, with hedges of forsythia in bloom, and clear skies, and a great overwhelming warmth and freshness flowing everywhere -- weather for flying kites, for taking to the open road, for wandering in the twilight.
It is my senior year in high school. In a few more weeks I will be leaving this place, these familiar buildings and grounds, and will enter the larger world beyond. Never has life held so much promise. I am afire at the thought of the great tasks ahead, the accomplishments expected, the months and years to be devoted to serious pursuits.
And yet the alleyway where I stand is deserted, no vehicles move along the main street, only a few schoolchildren, far away, play skip-rope on the sidewalk. No silhouettes show within the windows of the high school. I step around the corner and enter the candy store, to the familiar tinkle of the bell, but the old shopkeeper no longer sits on his high stool, watching over the cases of sweets, the boxes of pencils, and the stacks of writing tablets, yellow and white.
In the reflection in the long mirror, where the girls used to pause to make sure their slips were not showing, I see myself for the first time, and I am like a god: young, vibrant, with unlined brow and a full head of hair, the epitome of strength and power. And yet within that smooth face that gazes back at me, and deep in those eyes, the knowledge is old, experienced, wise -- it is the knowledge of a lifetime, an awareness of all the mistakes yet to be made, the sorrows to be encountered, the wrong turns taken.
I am caught in a strange twist: I have come back to the fullness of youth, to the moment of first manhood, to the time when I was never stronger or more hopeful -- and yet I have returned bringing the knowledge of my entire life to come, as it would be lived and played out during the next few decades. "To have known then what one knows now," was the old lament. That, however, was something that could never be.
And yet it has happened, this is no dream -- an enchantment, perhaps, or a strangely extended reverie -- but a moment in which everything becomes extraordinarily real. When I step back out to the street again, the bricks in the sidewalk, with their glazed star patterns, are unchanged. The cast-iron storefronts are still there, the trees and the roofs and the flags flying in front of the city building across the street. This is not just any place; it is the town where I were born, where I spent my early youth. Yet it is almost entirely deserted.
The children with their jump-rope ignore me as I approach them. Am I invisible to their eyes, a phantom, an impossibility out of time, or are they so absorbed in their counting that they do not look up? Farther down the street I recognize someone I know, an old friend, in a battered Chevrolet convertible, pulled over to the curb, waiting for someone to come out of the school. It is Dan, one of my best friends, someone I played football with, and talked about girls with, who is waiting to pick up his girl friend after school.
"Dan! Is it you? Do you remember me?" I call out to him, out of long habit, from the present, from the vantage point of over half a century of lived-out years. Dan sees me and waves, and leans over to open the car door. "Come on," he says. "She probably had to stay after school for half an hour. Maybe they caught her passing notes in study hall. But she'll be all right. Come on. We'll take a spin out to the park and back."
I get in, and soon we are driving along the street with warm spring air rushing over us. Nothing has changed. The houses are the same, the trees, the hedges flowering everywhere -- and yet, except for a few children gathered on the streetcorners, it seems deserted. No housewives hanging out the wash, no carpenters banging away at the frame of a new house, no mailman heading up the walk.
Dan notices my frown, my look of consternation. "Don't worry about it," he says, holding the steering wheel with his left hand and reaching to punch me on the shoulder with the right. "It's all real, and you're not dreaming. You've simply come back through time. Or, looked at another way, you were always here. You never left."
I am terribly frightened. A chill comes over me. My teeth begin to chatter.
We pass the first root-beer stand, the one across from the city swimming pool. Dan honks and waves at the one car waiting for curb service. We are close enough to see that it is his twin brother, Don, with his girl friend, the two of them in Don's old Chrysler with all the rust spots and the hardtop peeling off. Ahead of us is the city park, with the tall trees, the winding roads, the shelter house.
"They never really understood time," Dan says. "All those scientists and physicists, the ones who made the bombs, the engineers who built the airplanes and the missiles. And the politicians who let it all happen -- they neither understood nor cared."
"Dan, I'm afraid. I think I'm going to be sick." He laughs but begins to pull over, so that the car's motion will no longer make me queasy. He guides the car into a parking space and turns off the engine.
We are in the park now. All around us are the great oaks and spreading hickories that have been growing there from the beginning, more than a hundred years ago, when the town was first laid out, and this venerable grove was set aside for a municipal park. All through my childhood I walked beneath this canopy, and played on those swings, and those two enormously long metal slides, and the merry-go-round that you pushed yourself, round and round, faster and faster, until you finally jumped on the running board and rode in a dizzy, ecstatic whirl.
We get out and walk toward one of the old buildings -- not the shelter house, but an equally old relic of the WPA days, a building made of brick and dressed stone, with a high-peaked slate roof. It marks the edge of the football field, and was used for storing hurdles for track, and the padded machine aspiring football players pushed around during practice, and the spindly-wheeled contraption with which the assistant coaches laid out running lanes and marked off the football field with ribbons of lime dust.
"You've come back," Dan said. "And it's really very simple. Part of you has never been away. And how could that happen? It's simple. It's because we are, all of us -- all of this -- basically organic. We are truly organic, as much as the trees, the grass, and the crickets and spiders and creatures that have always lived here. Time is organic, and life -- it is all one seamless web, as many have suggested, but few have realized. Nothing lasts, and yet while it does, it is connected in ways that defy reason, that are beyond the reach of science or logic."
As we walk along I breathe deeply, taking in great drafts of air, hoping this will clear my mind, so that I can understand what he is saying. We stop at the edge of the circular concrete wading pool that had been built by my grandfather, Tom Carter, back in the 1930s.
I can still recall being brought here by my mother in the early 1940s -- perhaps while my father was away at war, in the South Pacific. I can remember being a toddler, and splashing out into the shallows, excited by the warmth and the wetness, comforted by the awareness that my mother was near, and I was safe. Nothing could happen to me while she watched over me, and I could crow and splash about to my heart's delight.
Dan and I sit down. The park bench is made of wooden slats fitted to an iron frame. Its slats, painted dark green, are chipped and worn away. There is no one else around. We have the park entirely to ourselves. It is four o'clock in the afternoon of a beautiful day in late spring.
"Let me guess," I begin. "The reason why it seems so deserted. Why there are so few grown-ups around. And only small children on the streetcorners. It's because most of those children, somewhere in the future, are still alive. They're in their late forties now, or early fifties. But the older people -- "
"All the teachers," Dan said. "The coaches. Old Sam at the candy store. The cops and the firemen, the people at church, the ones who came to the football games, the older guys who worked at the can factory -- "
"They're gone. Or most of them."
"And you and I, we have grown and developed in the same way. Each of us has spread out in time like some sort of elaborate, elongated plant, with a deep root, an invisible root, that still reaches back to our origins, our beginnings. And as long as we are alive, and flowering, with sap still running in our veins -- "
"Then that root stays vital," he says. "And if we wish, our spirits, our essence, can move back and forth along that mysterious vein. The essence of the flower -- the ultimate knowledge of the entire plant, what it will become in time -- can still connect with that hidden root system, with that nourishing presence that spreads underground in a way that mirrors the leafy, flowering entity spread out above the ground, lifted into time and space."
"When the plant stiffens and fades, the roots too must become part of the earth again."
"Yes. That is why there are so few of us here now. But there is another reason. Even among those who still remain -- our classmates, our former lovers, our childhood friends -- there are not many who can even conceive of coming back, of returning to their origins. They find themselves in a mechanical, routinized world.
"Time travel, to them, could only be achieved by some external means -- some gadget or electronic device thought up by some scientist or engineer, some maker of guided missiles or supercomputers. For them, it never happens. They experience time as a wave that carries them along like a cork bobbing on a fast-moving stream. It flows in one direction only, toward a destination where they assume they will be dashed to pieces."
"But in reality it is nothing like that."
"In reality it is whatever you imagine it to be," he replies, picking up a small stone and tossing it out onto the pool's surface, where ripples spread for a moment and gradually disappear. "But we mustn't be too harsh on our former classmates, or the contemporaries of our youth. Some are living now, in the present from which we both came, and of those, many do good works, and live fruitful lives, even if they lack the inclination to move back and forth in time.
"Time travel, in itself -- that age-old dream of necromancers and mad inventors -- is not so great an accomplishment. It is simply something that can happen. Some trees bear apples, others bear oranges or pears. One cannot expect a pear tree to yield Granny Smith apples. It does what it was meant to do from the beginning."
"Many of our youthful friends were never meant to return?"
"Even that is mechanical thinking. In a while, you will grow used to what has happened to you. This is your first visit, evidently, and I can understand how strange all this must seem. But there are many more moments in your life to visit again, to re-examine, to experience once more. You can return to earliest childhood, to intervals of pure, unadulterated bliss, such as the moment when you were two or three years old, and your mother let you splash about in the warm water of the wading pool now in front of us. Or you can think, instead, of regaining the experience of first love, of sexual initiation, of the great mystery and joy of becoming one with another human being."
"All that can be re-experienced?"
"Why not? It is all still there, somewhere, on the great elongated vine of your life, hanging like a ripe cluster, picked once, in time, and bursting with sweetness then, yet mysteriously waiting once again, and always, as long as the vine is tender, and the imagination vivid."
"But I want to change some of those moments!" I exclaim. "I treated some of those friends, those lovers, with such shabbiness! I made so many mistakes, behaved so foolishly!"
He laughs and cuffs me on the shoulder. "Oh no, you can't do that, as everyone knows! You may travel back through time, if you can find the secret pathway. But nothing can be changed, nothing altered. Everything must remain as it always was. Even if you wanted to change it, you could not. It is your past life, not your present one.
"The leaf itself cannot go down again among the roots. Only the essence of leaf is mobile -- the sap, the fluid. The roots themselves are held fast by the earth, the rock, the darkness. They grow out into nothingness, they reach the farthest perimeter; but they are immovable."
"But we are having this conversation now, and yet I have no recollection of having had it before, when we were young. And so much has changed: the town is depopulated. Things are not as they once were."
"Don't confuse time with memory," he replies. "Time is immutable, always unchanging, branching in all directions, like the web in which the spider balances for a season, able to go up and down, back and forth. The spider can weave more pattern, if it deems this to be necessary, out of its very innards, but as long as the web is intact, it never ventures beyond the farthest strand, the final anchoring filament. There are limits to everything -- especially time.
"But memory -- " He chuckles, and picks up another stone, and throws it into the empty wading pool, the bottom of which is covered with dry leaves. The stone rattles to a stop.
"You cannot remember the words of a book you read five years ago, or the sequence of scenes in a film you saw last summer. Your rational mind thinks it can; it retains a title or two, an author's name. But the actual experience of reading the words on the page, and feeling them as the author intended you to do -- or seeing the images on the screen, as the director worked them out -- all that has vanished. Try it, if you don't believe me. You'll find it's disappeared and forgotten."
"And the same holds true for our specific memories -- of youth, of childhood?"
"Of course. What you and I may have said, sitting here on this bench, the first time, or the tenth or the thousandth time, does not matter. What matters is that we are here now. As a matter of fact, what we said -- what we say now -- is always the same. Always we share this consciousness of life, the joy and the delight of it; and always we sense the ultimate limits of it -- our own mortality, if you will. This sets us apart from the others; it may have helped to form the basis of our friendship.
"In years to come, I will begin to explore the ironies and the tragedies of historical narration, and you will become a poet, a dreamer, an imaginer of alternative ways of seeing things. But these impulses were alive in us from the beginning. And what we talked about, as we sat on this park bench, waiting for our girl friends to get out of school, or our parents to come home from work -- what we talked about was as serious then as what we talk about now."
He stands up, stretches, and turns toward the car parked at the edge of the drive. "She'll be getting out soon," he says. "And if I'm not there to pick her up, a dozen other guys will be after her." He grins. "Can't let that happen."
I walk with him to the car. We shake hands. "Go back to the wading pool," he says. "Your grandfather built it, your father worked on it. In its waters you were baptized. In time to come you will bring your daughter here, to this place, and ask her to walk around the concrete circle, in the same way that you, all your life, have walked through various mazes, and along strange patterns laid out in cathedral floors. By surrendering to such turnings, by submitting to such swerving, one acts out the great dance through time and space, the cosmic flowering."
Back in his convertible now, he starts the engine.
"And will all of this disappear eventually," I ask, "when neither of us can come back? When even the little children on the corner have grown old, and no one remains who can remember this time, this place?"
"Not at all," he replies. "Your writing it down will help to make it last, and give it a kind of immortality. Whoever reads your words, if you speak the truth, will share in its essence." He waves and drives off, spinning the car's wheels in the gravel.
I can imagine the greeting, a few minutes later, when she comes down the walkway, all fresh and lovely and full of life, and slips in beside him, and they drive off into the evening..
Ahead of me, a few steps away, is the shallow basin of concrete, with the rusted, capped spigot in the middle, and the layer of dead leaves. I walk toward it, to begin my ritual circling, my investigation of solitude, my returning to the path that, trod once, is trod always. I look down. Once more there are circles spreading on its surface, like echoes made visible.
"Don't you just love this particular blend," a familiar voice asks, from somewhere beyond the wisps of steam rising from my ceramic cup. "It's one of my favorites. It's green, but it also contains apple blossom, and pear, and just a touch of orange."
I take another sip, and inhale the fragrance. "It's wonderful."
"I'm so glad you like it," she says. "Nothing could make me happier than that you are relaxed and peaceful, and that you are here with me now, at this very moment."
All work is copyrighted property of Jared Carter.
© 2004 SubtleTea Productions All Rights Reserved