Sunday, June 2, 2019 • Short Stories
Thunder & Time
A little boy lives in my neighborhood. He plays in his yard and causes much ruckus. His mother shouts at him from the house. He bangs on things with sticks and draws up diabolical schemes against the native wildlife. He makes his sister furious. They play together until she screams and storms off, leaving him sitting quietly in the grass looking at his toys, not sure what he did wrong. He picks up his trumpet and goes marching across the yard, blasting out his discordance at the chattering squirrels until his world comes back in tune.
I call this kid Thunder. And he is my Reveille.
I get that kid.
Today is Saturday on the east coast of America. This small Upstate town bustles and jives—all the people outside—the sidewalks hosting mini-parades; the Hudson River spotted by sailboats, their white sails like folded cloth napkins set atop a table. It’s a good day for strolling and humming and sitting on benches. I have such ideas myself, but have not yet reached the corner before Thunder says hello.
He leaps from behind a light pole with a loud war cry. His face is streaked with mud, his clothes filthy—his mother will not be happy.
“Hey, Thunder,” I say. “Who are you today?”
“I’m a time traveler!”
“Ah, of course. So where’s your time machine?”
He points to a nearby tree, a massive old oak that, indeed, looks as if it has visited every age. We stand beneath it and crane our necks to see what hides within its shadowy green umbrella. Nothing but a squirrel, who watches us suspiciously from a high branch, likely expecting a trumpet blast at any moment.
“Do you know the secret of the tree?” Thunder says. He dips his foot into a small hidden recess in the base of the tree’s trunk. When his foot reappears, there’s a shining wetness on the toe of his shoe. “These are teardrops. From when the tree cries. It keeps them stored here.”
“Why does the tree cry?” I ask.
But his eyes are fixed on the ground, perhaps spying something there only he can see. He goes to one knee, plucks a stem of grass and twirls it in his fingers—his eyes wide in benediction. All is sacred to a child.
“Would you like to use my time machine?”
Above us the leaves shift in a breeze. Light dances down and a drop of sun lands on the back of my hand. I turn my palm upwards to catch it.
“I would consider myself very privileged to use your time machine. But where will I go?”
“Someplace important,” he says, and nothing more.
He crawls to the tree, reaches his hand deep inside the same small hidden recess where he’d dipped his shoe, grabs and twists at something. Suddenly an opening appears in the tree trunk—a door. I duck my head and enter. Thunder doesn’t follow. He stands outside—the sun in his hair—and waves goodbye. Before I can think a sensible thought, he reaches out and twists the unseen dials. The door slides shut with a wooden click, and I’m alone and there is absolute darkness and all time is lost.
Somewhere on the other side of the Forest of Cuckoo Clocks, the time-traveling tree comes back into existence with a clunk. The door slides open. Blinking, I step out into London of two years ago.
Hyde Park is filled with many people. The winter has been cold and today is the first blue-sky day in months. People take off their scarves and stroll the paths and sit on blankets, happy and talking together, emboldened by a single sunny afternoon as only the weather-bruised British can be.
I follow the main path and soon come to the western edge of the park. There aren’t many people here. A young man sits on the ground with his back against a tree, his legs crossed, holding a phone in his lap. He stares blankly—white crisp scuttling clouds casting shadows over the long spaces—and doesn’t notice until I’m near. He’s hesitant, but doesn’t decline when I ask to sit with him.
He doesn’t recognize me. Perhaps then it is true: we can change so much that we do not recognize ourselves. But unlike him, I have the gift of hindsight, and know that he is me.
My former self is not relaxed company. Beyond the initial hello, he offers nothing. He looks away and fidgets. I intentionally avert my eyes, not wishing to frighten him with my company.
He is ruined. His entire being seems struck down by a heavy iron. His forehead is lined, the skin between his temples gathered together as if trying to solve the world, and finding no answer, squeezes tighter as the dying man might tense before the final shudder. So he too appears to be holding the last inhale, terrified to exhale for it might be his last. He hasn’t breathed in weeks.
I remember how he feels.
He’s lost everything he thought most important. All of it has been taken away with one glorious rip and here he sits in the frozen dirt in a foreign city at the end of a gray winter utterly disillusioned. All his fears have come true. His mind races and risks obsession in every moment. He barely eats, doesn’t sleep. He’s pale and it’s not the chill air that makes his hands shake. He looks incredibly sad and people ask him if everything is okay. But tears don’t reveal themselves. He only cries alone, sometimes during the day, always at night, when he kneels beside his bed in a tiny rented room in a stranger’s apartment with a closet that barely fits his suitcase.
When looking at one’s former suffering self, it is difficult not to feel pity.
But this is not why I came. Pity is already here in abundance, bundled in a black coat leaning against a tree. I have empathy—oh how I have that!—but I do not have pity.
“You are going through a difficult time.”
“Yes,” he says, unaware I haven’t asked a question.
“You’ve lost things.”
“You want them back.”
“You don’t know who you are anymore.”
He looks at me, the insightful questions of a stranger catching him off-guard.
“I thought I did,” he says. “I thought I knew myself really well.”
“But now you know nothing.”
He’s silent. A middle-aged couple walks past, between them their kid. Everything reminds him of what he’s lost. The past and all the ways we romanticize it, and the future and all the promises we thought were ours—that past and that future packed dense into a single ball with which we toss and torture ourselves. That’s how it once was for you too, remember?
“This is all so hard,” he says. “But everything happens for a reason, right? It’ll all be okay?”
How would you answer? What would you tell yourself? What did you tell yourself when times got tough, when you lay awake in the night and watched the clock blur at bedside? We might say, ”These things shall pass?” Or maybe, ”When one door closes, another door opens?” There exists a bottomless pit of optimistic, comfy phrases made to satiate us in dark times. We mine their rocky veins for their silver-lined hopes.
But when I consider what words meant the most, it was not the safe sympathies that most people shared, but the hard truths that only a rare few had the courage to spill. These words that were raw and hard as bone. These words that did not speak to my weakness but to that which was stronger. These words that challenged me to stand again. What hope? Hope in a future I want, a hope driven by need and fueled by fear? That hope is an obstacle to surrender and acceptance of what is. In the deep, echoing quarry of suffering, hope is a fool’s gold. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here, so that you might finally know real faith.
”No, you won’t be ok.”
No one has ever said this to him. He’s horrified, his face so transfigured by shock that I almost laugh. But this probably wouldn’t be the best time for humor. Not yet. Someday. He first needs to give up the power he believes he has. He must admit defeat.
“You are not going to be ok,” I continue. “You will never have those things you want so badly. It doesn’t matter what you try. You are about to go through the worst pain of your life and no one or no thing can save you. You can’t stop this. You can’t make this go faster. If you attempt to avoid or control it, you’ll only make it worse. Nothing will ever be the same. You might not make it out alive”
He isn’t able to speak.
“You’ll meet many people in your life who’ve been in the same place as you, suffering some great loss—maybe the loss of a parent, a child, a spouse, a pet; or maybe the loss of a job, the house taken away; or maybe the loss of health, six months to live. The purpose is always the same. These moments are simply wake-up calls, a slap in the face encouraging us to stop and ask ourselves questions we would never be motivated to ask otherwise. For most of us, this moment will be the first time we’ve been present in our lives, the bucket of ice water poured on our heads. You’d think it enough. But for many people, the great chance is missed. We won’t reflect, instead we’ll play victim in a hostile world, seek escape in distraction and belief, until one day we might get another face slap, only harder. Our beliefs have us battling against the world, but we never realize the battle exists only in us, our ghosts, so there’s never victory. We never surrender our beliefs. We cling to them.”
But I won’t tell him how much pain it takes to surrender one’s beliefs. Not half-assed surrender when one simply constructs another safety net three floors down, but real jump-out-a-burning-building there-is-no-God surrender. Surrender that means discarding every belief used to comfort and guard oneself from confronting the monstrous fears we spend our entire lives running from. The path less taken begins this way, and it makes all the difference.
“I know you’ve told many people your story and they’ve said how sorry they are for your troubles, but I won’t do that. I don’t pity you. You play the victim—you’re quite good at it—but you’re not without choice. This is the greatest opportunity. This is your wake-up call. Either seize your life, or don’t. I don’t know how you’ll end. But I won’t mourn this day. Because I am happy for you. I’m ridiculously, unabashedly delighted to see you in this place.”
Something begins to stir in him; his defense.
“I’m right where I’m supposed to be,” he stammers.
“Shut up,” I say. “You have no idea what you’re talking about. You’re reaching for platitudes to soothe yourself. Don’t numb yourself. Let it burn.”
“I need to love myself.”
“You need to forget yourself.”
“I need to forgive.”
“You need to stop stalling.”
“I don’t know what to believe in anymore.”
“Good. Truth doesn’t require any effort of belief.”
I give him a moment to consider what’s been said. This is exhausting. I wish the ice cream shoppe was open.
Finally, he says, “I’m really scared.”
And the honesty warms my heart. To hear him speak with vulnerability, here in the midst of all this—this is the characteristic of humanity worth waiting for. I relax my tone. He’s taken down a wall, or at least removed a few bricks.
“Damn right you’re scared. You’ve just lost the world as you’ve known it. You’ve been thrown out of the nest. You’ve been tossed out of the plane and your friggin’ parachute is yesterday’s laundry. You’re stranded at sea and you don’t even have the energy to dream up a volleyball named Wilson. You’re a goner.”
“It kind of sucks,” he says, and in spite of himself, he actually grins. There you go, kid—this life is meant for grins.
“I don’t know where I’m going,” he sighs. “I don’t know what I want anymore.”
Now I grin.
Over the Rainbow
In three weeks this sad, lost person sitting next to me will be walking down Portobello Road and feel an unexpected determination rising in his chest, followed by a profound, nameless sense that something big is about to happen. That evening he writes this. The right thing to do suddenly becomes clear: he must cut ties with the past. He takes action. He buys a plane ticket back to America, the assumption that he’ll get a job in New York and return to a normal life. But as he books the ticket, he’ll say to a friend that he feels this isn’t meant to happen, though he can’t explain what makes him feel this way.
Five days before the flight, a relatively unknown former co-worker will contact him about a potential freelance project. On a whim, without expectation, he’ll make a hopeless pitch for the job—an hour-long online conversation with two odd characters sitting beside a pool . At the end of the call they will ask him, “How fast can you get to India?”
A week later, only one month from this very day when he sits next to me in Hyde Park, he will step out of an airplane wearing out-of-place High Street shoes and expensive denim, carrying his life in two suitcases. He’ll step into the bright sunshine, onto the sizzling hot tarmac of the Goa International Airport, from where a taxi cab will rush his still spinning head through the morning jungle roads with colors so bright in contrast to the English winter he’ll feel like Dorothy landing in Oz. He will spend the next three months living in a yoga retreat, room and board fully paid, before eventually renting his own villa.
All told he’ll live in India for a year. During this year he will come to call Goa home—that wild paradise borne of European hippies, its grungy beaches, its smoky villages, its fruit shacks and swaying palms. He will sit in the sand and exist wholly in flip-flops and shorts, watching the sun fall golden into the Arabian Sea, hearing the temples and motorbikes and frogs at twilight. He will make lifelong friends, sit in an outdoor cafe and watch the monsoon rains for hours while talking about love, life and God—when a coconut falls they’ll laugh at its omens. He’ll meet an Indian girl, who by complete happenstance was hired by the same yoga retreat that had hired him, and after several nights riding with her on his scooter in the rain under a full moon, he’ll remember the feeling of love. He’ll play his part in an absurd drama involving a computer developer hunted by the IRA; a deep-sea scuba-diver on a murderous rampage to get his investment back; and a British mad man building crystal towers in his backyard. He’ll survive all that. He’ll read his writing to an audience while accompanied by a German flutist named Blue. He’ll scream off the sea cliffs and discover his anger with the help of a Scottish man. He’ll learn to relax, become more confident, unloosen his top shirt button. People back home will say he looks younger. He’ll visit Nepal and see the Himalayas. And when it finally comes time to leave India, another new friend will appear to help him say goodbye.
So I say to him now, “I think it’s good that you don’t know what you want.”
He gazes off again. He’ll forget this conversation.
“Don’t waste this,” I say. “This chance doesn’t come often. Don’t waste this suffering.”
“I’ll try not to.”
And I know he’s sincere. I know he’s doing all he can; he’s doing a lot. But also I know what comes next, how he’ll stumble.
He’ll attempt to crawl back into old comfortable holes. He’ll make desperate attempts at relationships. He’ll pick up cigarettes again. He’ll look to the big city for a high-paying salary and the distraction of 60-hour work weeks and promise of future admiration. He’ll even attempt the promised lads of a new religion. However, despite his best efforts, none of this will come to fruition. Nothing that once stuck to him will stick to him again. Despite his best efforts to go back, it won’t happen. I don’t know why, not yet anyway, but I see it.
“You’ll never regret any of this,” I say to him.
“I just don’t want to hurt anybody anymore,” he says.
I wish I could tell him he won’t.
He shivers and it’s time to leave. We stand up and shake hands. I give him a hug. He’ll need a few of those. They’ll come in unexpected places.
“Thank you, sir.” He says. “For your honesty. I don’t take it for granted.”
“I know you don’t,” I say. I nod goodbye and leave him there, his hands stuffed in his coat pockets. It’s not visible, but there’s a rip inside the left pocket, and I know he’s feeling the hole with his fingers, making it bigger. But it doesn’t matter; someday he’ll leave the coat on a flight between America and India, never to see it again. Pockets.
As I retrace my steps back across Hyde Park, I look southwest, toward Kensington, toward Fulham, toward Putney. I can hear the traffic on the funny-named roads, imagine the Thames and the gulls on the bridge; and on a tucked-away corner sits a house where I once lived with unpacked boxes and a beautiful young woman.
“Thank you,” I whisper. “Thank you.”
I find my time-traveling tree and climb into the still-open door. It slides shut as if waiting for me. In the darkness I feel time flutter and die, and suddenly the door opens and I’m stepping back into Upstate New York and today.
Thunder still sits in the grass, though now a large pile of rocks sits next to him. He has a slingshot too, and a sketchbook open to a page of what looks like a deer drawn by a six-year-old boy. There appears to be a target drawn in bright red crayon on the deer’s rear-end.
“How was your trip?” He asks.
“It was good,” I say. “Thank you.”
He smiles and goes back to stockpiling rocks. But as I turn to walk home, I hear the boy say:
“So that it might grow taller.”
“You wanted to know why the tree cries, why it keeps its teardrops… It cries so it can grow taller.”