It didn’t take long for us to figure out that the communications we were receiving and responding to weren’t from another place—Centauri 311 or the Altarian StarBelt—but were from another time, another earth time, some time in our future. We didn’t know how far into the future they were hailing us from, but we could tell it was the future, and that the future was looking pretty grim.
This was when I was eight and my brother, Kenny, was eleven.
What surprised us wasn’t so much the unsettling disaster the future held in store for us, but instead how little the scientists on the other end of this correspondence seemed to know or understand about the dire end in store for them, considering they had managed to establish a communication with their own past. Albeit less by design than bad luck.
“The state of science in the future sure is rotten,” I told my brother after our first contact.
For one thing, one of the guys in the video image, which was full of static and blur, had a deep blue tint to his skin and, when he turned profile, you could see the soft beginnings of gills along his neck, scarred over and unworkable. And while I never mentioned this to my brother, it struck me as unbearably depressing that all our future work, all our ambitions and ideas, would ultimately result in a failed merman prototype and a presumably submerged and irrecoverable planet.
And then, not only did they think we were aliens ourselves, they asked us for help saving their doomed planet, and then believed my brother when he fed them that bullshit story about our alien heritage, our planet’s hypothermic core, whatever the hell that is, and its affect on our appearance. Anyone willing to believe that kind of malarkey wasn’t just doomed but maybe also deserved it just a little.
Not that all was completely lost for them. As far as things go, we were pretty highly, intensely intelligent. It would only be two more years before Kenny invented the Kurzym Bypass, and only six more years before I would create a singularity and the small jar in which to contain it.
We tried to calculate the years between our lives and theirs, but there were too many variables, even for the likes of Kenny and me. At some point in our future, and by whatever metric, we will apparently decide our calendar system no longer works and that the subsequent replacement calendars also do not work, and factions will split, new and competing calendars will be formed, revised, and discarded, so many so that by the time time reaches the poor saps who will make contact with us, they won’t know from Year One. There will have been, finally, too many calendars floating about, too many calendars and no good idea which of them is right, that after a couple of hours thorning his way through equations and branching timelines pieced together based on the rambling descriptions of the history of the slipshod calendar system of the future, Kenny gave up trying.
“It won’t affect us directly,” he said, dropping his pen on the desk and folding his hands behind his head, “and that’s enough for me.”
“But do you think we can fix it?” I asked, but Kenny only shrugged and started work on another project. He claimed not to care, but in fact I could tell the whole thing upset him, but in a different way than it had upset me. To him, the experiment was a failure. Sure, he’d managed to reach out into our future but that wasn’t what he had been aiming for. A gold-skinned, nubile alien princess would have made him happiest, but really anything else would have made him happy. That he had reached out so far with his communicator, had worked so long and hard on it, only to connect back again with our own small, sad planet made him incredibly depressed, I could tell.
The next day we’d lost the signal. Kenny gave a half-hearted effort to bring them back and then his attentions were drawn elsewhere. He was like that. I spent the next two days seeking them out again. Then one morning I woke up and saw he’d torn the communicator to pieces, scooped out its insides, raided his own creation for parts for something new. He wouldn’t tell me what.
When I asked him about it, asked him about finding our future again, he raised his voice and said, “Jesus Christ, I already told you it’s got nothing to do with us. That’s enough for me. Should be enough for you, too. Drop it, will you?”
But it wasn’t enough for me, and, in truth, I didn’t believe him, not exactly. Didn’t believe he couldn’t have helped. Didn’t believe it wasn’t going to affect us. Didn’t believe he was going to drop it or stop thinking of it either. But we never talked about it again, and after a while, it slipped my mind, but now he’s gone, Kenny is. And lately it has all come back to me, and every now and then, I find myself looking up and watching the skies.
Some people, when they saw her dressed in her cowgirl get-up, thought, That sure is a strange get-up. That sure is an awful strange outfit she’s wearing.
A lot of times, these people assumed she must be part of a wild-west show, like the ones they had at Six Flags or Disneyland, that they must be near an amusement park or traveling carnival, and that she was part of a larger cast of characters—gunslingers and barkeeps and madames and town drunks—and that any minute now, an old-timer sort of fellow would stand up and, jawing on a piece of straw or a pipe, announce the beginning of the show.
Any minute now, they thought as they watched her move through the crowd of people, a handle-bar-mustachioed old coot would stand up from a rocking chair and holler out, in that strange way theater-folk had about them, “What was that you said? Black Bart’s come back to Rusty Falls?” Or something like that. Then others would follow-suit, a woman in a bonnet, maybe, clutching some tow-headed child actor to the front of her dress, a guy wearing a gambler’s visor, or a banker’s visor. A flash-mob sort of thing, but with actors and cap-guns instead of dancers.
Or maybe she worked on Broadway. Wasn’t there an Annie, Get Your Gun, or some other Pretty Girl with a Gun production going on?
Her prettiness didn’t help. It was a strange outfit made even stranger by how pretty she was. Dark, intense eyes. Pretty hair, too, long and swept back and then back again to cascade over her shoulders, and, in certain lights, red, and in other lights, gold.
Maybe if she were laughing wearing that outfit, maybe if she were smiling and laughing and spinning around as she walked, maybe if she were interacting with the people who saw her and were taken aback by her cowgirl suit, her white hat, the aluminum foil star on her chest, maybe if she acted like there were some joke or point to why she was wearing it, maybe then it wouldn’t seem quite so strange. But there was a look of dead seriousness in her eyes, a concentrated look, a focused look, and the people who saw her and then saw this look in her eyes broke out of step and opened up a kind of path for her, a parting of the Red Sea, so to speak.
Most people, however, didn’t notice her, or if they noticed her at all, did so only just long enough to give her and her cowgirl get-up a mental eye-roll (mental because they didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of having been noticed) and thought to themselves, Fucking Greenpoint hipsters, or thought to themselves, Fucking tourists, or maybe just, Fucking fuckers.
But for her, none of these people mattered much. For her there was only one person, only one person she wanted to notice her and her cowgirl dress, and her hat, and the silver star on her chest, but mostly notice the gun in its holster, too-silver and too-pearl-handled to look real, even though it was real. Even though it was very real. Only one person she wanted to see her, to really see her and realize what he’d done and why what he’d done merited all of this, know and understand all of it so that when she shot him right in his face, right in the middle of his beady-eyed rat-face, there wouldn’t be any question, not one question in his rat-faced little brain as to why.
I often find myself thinking back to a time when I worked for a summer walking the neighborhoods of Dallas, going door-to-door, asking concerned citizens to support a citywide curbside recycling program both with their signatures and a donation. I was good at the signatures, bad at the donations, and it’s a surprise that I held the job for the whole summer since I was paid based on the donations I received. I say I was bad at donations, which isn’t entirely correct. People gave, but instead of checks, they gave water or lemonade, or a few minutes inside their air-conditioned houses, though these small gifts had nothing to do with my salesmanship and everything to do with my health or what people perceived as my declining health. It was a brutally hot summer and I was required to wear a suit and tie, and I was not in the best shape of my life. Let me just say while not at the heaviest stage of my life, I was not far off it, either.
Most people, then, when they saw me at their door, sweat-stained and red-faced and hard-breathing, they invited me in before I even had a chance to say anything at all. They brought me inside and had me wait in their front hall while they poured me a glass of ice water or tea and judging by these quick glimpses inside these houses, no one in these neighborhoods could afford more than the bare essentials, and most were living just barely within their means, and while I could say that these signs of obvious scraping-by-ness made it difficult for me to really push these people for donations, or that they’re situation made them unwilling to give, the truth of the matter is my colleagues returned with packets full of checks and plainly I was and have always been a poor salesman.
One morning halfway through the summer, I found myself once again sweating in the middle of an elderly gentleman’s hallway. I say elderly. I was a young man in my early twenties, and no doubt he was maybe fifty, or just over, but even still, even now I can’t help but think of him as elderly. He had gone to the kitchen and then had come back with a cold can of beer in each hand. It wasn’t yet ten o’clock. I told him, I’m sorry, but I couldn’t, and he told me to come inside and have a seat, and not to worry since they were both for him. The rules were very clear on this point—not entering a person’s home even if invited, not engaging for lengthy conversations—but I had never been apt at rule-following, and the day ahead of me promised to be a brutal slog through a humid hi-90s day, so I followed him deeper into his house.
His living room was furnished with a patio chaise and two plastic lawnchairs. He took the chaise, laid himself out, took a large pull of one of the beers while he held the other one out. I took it, took a sip, sat uneasily in the plastic chair, unsure of its strength, my weight. He finished his beer in another large swallow and then stood up and padded into his kitchen and came back with two more, which he told me really were both for him, and which he finished before I’d finished my own. So far I hadn’t once mentioned anything about curbside recycling. I hadn’t said much of anything at all, in fact, but he didn’t seem to care and hadn’t said much either.
Half-finished with my beer and feeling increasingly uncomfortable, I was about to excuse myself when he dove into a long, rambling story, the gist of which centered around a six-month stint he pulled in Mexico City, where he’d gone because he had theory about Mexican girls, which took him six months to disprove. Then he told me he had some weed too and that it was upstairs in the attic. He told me that when he was married he would go smoke up there, but now that he wasn’t married, he still couldn’t quite break that habit. I told him that I didn’t smoke weed and he told me, Suit yourself, and stood up and walked out of the room and for reasons I don’t quite remember, I followed him.
The attic was empty of normal attic junk. It had a floor, and there was a small mattress laid out on the floor next to a window. I saw the bed and thought distressing thoughts and was about to back my way back down the attic ladder when he grabbed me by the scruff of my neck, not in a violent or difficult way, and pulled me the rest of the way in, then let go to slap me hard on the back, and then he plopped down on the mattress, pulled a tin box off a windowsill, pulled out papers and a baggie and rolled a joint.
The point to this story, I’ll tell you now, is this: I was waiting.
That was the time in my life when I was always waiting for something to happen.
He lit his joint and took a drag and coughed and took another drag. I waited for him to offer it to me, having decided I’d take it if he did, but he never did. Then he started talking about his ex-wife and how he used to play guitar and about how shitty it was to live in Dallas. He smoked his joint down to a roach and didn’t stop talking, until he started yawning and then he told he was going to take a nap and that it was nice of me to stop by. He laid down on the mattress. I walked back downstairs, grabbed my clip board, and then left.
Here is how it works: her brother brings them in. She pretends, at first, that she doesn’t see them, that she doesn’t see anything.
She has always had that look, far away and distant and from another time. When they first started this, they paled up her skin, thinking that more ghostly would be more convincing, but, after a few dry runs, they decided that that pale was too pale, and it made the marks suspicious.
The ones who don’t believe her, who think she is a scam, but a fun and entertaining one and why not pay the five dollars?, believe that she traffics in generalities, banal statements of fame and fortune or tragedy and pain that could apply, really, to just about anyone. Or they believe that she is at the head of an entire network of scam artists, which includes that chatty woman selling beads and knick-knacks down the road, and the bodega guy who sells roasted corn, the bartender in the only bar in this six block stretch, and the kid selling Coca-Cola and ice cream bars out of a white plastic cooler, that they are all working for her, feeding her information, passing along secret signals about what couple is ripe for the picking, where they are from, who they long to hear from again, what they long for her to tell them. Some of them think that she tells them only what she thinks they want to hear, stories of success or fame or happiness or fulfillment, while others think that it’s her brother who is the scam artist and that she is simply one of his pawns, that he’s pulling all the strings and making all the predictions and suckering all the tourists.
Here is how it works: her brother brings them inside. Even before any of them—the marks, her brother—step inside, she begins to write, and she writes and she writes, and when she’s done, she steps back and waits for them to ask her what it all means. She doesn’t know what it all means, but she reads it to them anyway, everything she has written. She doesn’t know where it comes from or what it all means or whether it is true or a lie, whether it makes sense to them or not, and she doesn’t care.
All that she cares about is that she will write and write, until there is nothing left, and then she will read what she has written, and that no matter what she cannot stop.
Stupid, she knew, but the running bothered her. She didn’t know why, it just did. There had been years of Little League and soccer and track, with all the running and stretching and special shoes and orange slices that went along with them, but all of that was over now. The new running had no obvious purpose and an intensity to it that seemed out-of-place. The first time she asked him about it he just said training, and headed out the door, banging it only moderately carelessly behind him. Training. He said it offhandedly, as if she should know what he was training for. A few weeks later she asked again and he just laughed. She wasn’t asking a third time. She has a picture of him running, it is only in her head now but it must have been an actual picture at some point. He is five, suddenly skinny and tall. A real boy is how she had newly begun to think of him, like Pinocchio. In the foreground there is a blur of brown from a startled bird. He is smiling. Both his feet are off the ground. She would like to talk about this to someone, to talk about the running, to talk about him leaving, but after all those years of only talking about the kids, she and her friends now have a carefully managed way of mostly not talking about them. Not to mention that there are kids with real problems, both typical and atypical. What was she supposed to say, “his running concerns me?” And if she mentioned it to his father he would laugh and say of course he’s running away, who could blame him, you can’t even let the kid go for a jog. Which, she would point out to him, is absolutely not true. She has been careful, over the years, to cultivate a particular kind of single-mother attentiveness: secretly vigilant, deliberately not suffocating. Hence the not asking. There isn’t a girlfriend, currently, but he doesn’t seem overtly heartbroken. But has he been? What would it even look like? The boy from the picture, the real boy, the boy she knew everything about, loved volcanoes. She read him all the books at their library about them and then, one day, he was reading them to her. Sometimes on walks he would ask her what they were walking on and she would wrongly answer, “the sidewalk,” “the earth?”. And he would keep asking, “Is it the crust? Is it the mantle?” She could never keep all the parts straight; there were plates that floated on magma, and faults happen where plates meet, but where did the crust and the mantle figure in? She would like to see him running, one last time, is how she thinks of it, but that is inappropriate, overly dramatic. After all, no one is dying. Has he been moving away from her, seemingly from the very moment that running picture was taken? Yes, probably. This is just one more step. This is the type of thing that you should talk about with your own parents, but her parents are gone. Near the end her own father took her out for ice cream, of all things. Dying hadn’t made him any more interested in talking about things, but she felt the need to fill the silence and chose to do it with a litany of her own past minor-league transgressions: summer jobs walked out on, things stolen, neighborhood pools broken into. It was, she figured afterward, her way of trying to make sure he knew her. But even further after that she realized she had felt like he’d known her all along. If she’s learned anything over the years is that all that saying goodbye business is primarily for the living. She could pull on a sweater, take her coffee down to the end of the driveway and wait for the fog-muffled sound of footsteps to tell her which way to watch for him. She likes to think his face, in the seconds before he noticed her, would tell her something about what he is going through. She knows the running is private, but she flatters herself to think she raised him well enough that he would maybe understand, overlook this transgression, so close to his leaving. What she suspects will happen is this: he will move out and things will be lonely, rough for a bit, but then fine. And there will be schools and jobs and lovers and kids and who knows what order these things will come in or what challenges they will include. And one day, probably sooner than she likes to think about, she will be the one who is dying and he will be there and maybe he will start a sentence with, “that summer I was 18.” And then he will tell her about whatever it is that has eaten up so many miles of their last summer together: that he worries that he has been drinking too much, that the days are ticking down to the one when she finds out her ex is remarrying, that he is in love with someone who doesn’t feel the same way. These things that will all feel so distant. And it is funny, but not surprising to her that this ending, in which she is dying, is the happiest one she can imagine.