Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Story From An Old Notebook by Anthony McCarthy


A grey, smoggy morning wasn’t unusual in a small, one factory town when that factory was a tannery. Every once in a while the stack would emit an evil line of black soot and an invisible vapor of some deadly sweet smelling esters filled the air. “Banana oil” some of the villagers called it. X knew that it wasn’t anything so innocuous. He remembered it from his childhood. It was something he associated with his bus ride into town for school, especially the first year. On this morning the chilly air wasn’t moving much and the low sun hadn’t broken through yet so the poison air hung over the downtown. He grimly thought it was fitting for what he was going to do.

X had driven there early and parked the car in front of the A&P store. He hadn’t been there in more than fifty years, it looked exactly the same as it had. Well, it would. It was exactly the same. Exactly.

He walked down the sidewalk towards the building, where the sub primary class was held. It was never called the kindergarten in his town. That was a rare instance of honesty. This downtown was no garden. He’d grown up away from the village, way out. The difference between the old, abandoned New England farms grown up to woods and here seemed so much more now than when he’d been a boy. He knew that would change in the coming years. The sub primary in the top floor of the Odd Fellow’s building was a sign of that. It had outgrown the one room in the elementary school since the war. The town had grown, now there were double classes for every grade, morning and afternoon sessions for the sub primary class

X walked around the corner, to wait at the side door of the building. He knew the bus would come about seven thirty. He tried not to think about what he was going to do.

The once familiar buildings looked different. The ugly ornate masonry facade on the Thompson building. Smaller than the stodgy, block lettering of the Odd Fellows, the biggest building here. He’d never been sure what the Odd Fellows were. Odd Fellows. Well, there was no one in the world who was odder than he was, than he had ever been.

He’d heard there had been illegal gambling up there before his time, as there was rumored to have been a brothel somewhere near. Come to think of it, he wondered if the room was rented in some shady deal between the Selectmen and the Odd Fellows, bribes paid. It was likely some of the Selectmen belonged to the organization. He’d never considered that possibility before. His mind went to other places in the town that would have been more appropriate. The old town hall had a field that would have been a good playground.

A freight train came through while he waited. It didn’t stop for passengers here anymore, It would carry them to the next town over for a few more years. Then it would only be a freight train. He watched till the blue Boston and Maine caboose went by. The only thing about the train that had any charm about it. Like the downtown, here, it was maintained for nothing so spiritual as beauty.

Finally, there was the sound of the bus as it came down the street, lumbering and shaking like it was made of cardboard. It slowed along the last hundred yards or so and stopped comfortably, though not gracefully in front of the door. X tensed, his breathing became shallower and faster. He told himself, do it now or you’ll have lost your chance. X knew he sat in the next seat from the back of the bus, it was his regular seat. A crowd of other children got off the bus first. X watched, vaguely familiar faces, through the wind shield. And there he was.

His eye fixed on the boy as he got off the bus to the exclusion of all the rest. This was the boy he had come for, a small, skinny, nervous, five years old. A homely, unattractive boy, though not unhealthy. He looked and felt the gun in his pocket against his leg. It was going to be hard, though he’d reasoned out that this was the only way to stop it and he didn’t have much time to do it.

But the boy was smiling today, smiling broadly. He’d never have expected that. He didn’t remember smiling much on the way into school. He knew he hated school, most days, he didn’t have friends, didn’t mix in well. He never would, he was homely and for some reason, no matter how carefully he dressed it all came unraveled. He had expected the boy to look miserable and that he’d be off on his own like he almost always was, but the noisy, excited knot of children he was in the middle of went straight inside the building and the opportunity was lost. The bus doors closed and it went on.

He’d have to wait till he came out to get back on the bus, there was no outdoor recess in this sub primary. He’d get closer to the door so he couldn’t miss him. Then he would shoot himself. The phrase, “double suicide” went through his mind. The boy was him when he was five.

X sighed and walked to the front of the building, looking up at the windows in the top floor. He saw a little girl looking out from the window seat. Daydreaming as he had many times, kneeling in the same place. He could picture it in his mind, the window seat, one of the choice places to be before the teacher rang the bell and they all sat down at the tables. There would be a crate of small, glass milk bottles with cardboard caps, still cold from the dairy. It would be the coolest place to keep it for the two hours before “refreshments”. There wasn’t any thought of a refrigerator. Next to it might be the bottles from the day before if it was one of the days the milk had come early. He remembered the look of them in their crate, the smell of rancid butterfat part of the sense memory.

X remembered how, when he was five, before “session” started, he would look out that window at the cars in the square, at the train, the same caboose he looked at. He remembered the teacher, an old farm woman who was hired to keep the class. She was usually nice enough, though she didn’t like him very much. Wondering why had never seemed worth it and it didn’t now. He really didn’t want to see her so he moved on.

He’d do it at noon time. If the boy was happy, let him have a few hours. He didn’t remember too many of those. School was awful, he hated it. It was better at home, in the fields around the old farm house. The animals didn’t care if he was homely or disheveled . That’s why he had decided to do it here, in town, so there wouldn’t be any association of his death with the farm.

His mother had been harried but sympathetic, his father was distant. That was the way of so many of the men were after the war, strangers to the children they fathered, too traumatized by the war or afraid of being unmanly. Or maybe they resented the easy life they’d been deprived of by the depression and the war. He’d come to understand more of it later. In fact, it was just at the point of his beginning to understand his father that it had happened.

X never saw his family after he was nineteen. That was the year he just disappeared from their life. More completely than it would have been if he’d died. He knew they must have have suffered terribly. Imagining everything from his running away to his being murdered, his body never found.. Especially his mother. She was like that, smart enough to imagine every likely scenario, uselessly trying to find a way to restore him or find him. And it was just at the point where things had started to go really well with him, he finally had made them happy with him. His college work went really well, he was a good student. Finally, his looks didn’t matter to anyone. He chuckled to himself, typing. The one practical course he ever took had made everything else possible. It was when he was expected to type everything that his awful hand writing wasn’t a roadblock.

And then, one afternoon, it had gone. His entire world, gone. Waking up from a session of deepest sleep, the deepest he’d ever gone into. It was like the deep, dreamless sleep he’d read about, or so he believed. None of the stuff he’d read said anything about unexpectedly ending up sixty five years earlier.

He’d thought he had gone insane, finding himself out of time, nineteen years of memories a delusion. Things that hadn’t been invented yet, times that had yet to happen, but the only thing he had in his head. The only explanation for what happened was impossible. It had taken him a long time to believe what he remembered so vividly. His having been a good history student had made him know that he wasn’t deluded but it was also and the greatest risk to his sanity. The many incidents of history that he knew were coming before they did, before there was any sign of them, was what had proven to him that he wasn’t insane. Though his knowledge of what would come wasn’t any source of comfort, it was the worst nightmare of all.

He had found out very quickly that he couldn’t change the past. Nothing he did to warn people had any effect. World War One, the Depression, World War Two, The Cold War, the two times he’d tried to intervene in individual incidents... nothing he said changed it, it had become part of the even without altering that. Not one single person who had been murdered was saved by his actions. Eventually, he came to accept that his accident must have been part of the history before he had been born all along. If he’d known before maybe he would have committed suicide then, instead of now. But he was a coward. He’d nurtured the futile hope that he could fix it well past the point he knew, by experience, that he’d been wrong.

He could have told them a lot about what was going to happen up to 1974, the year it happened. He’d lived a horrific life. Knowing the mountains of dead, mountains he had seen in retrospect during his childhood, just hills in the landscape of the panoramic past. It was quite different when you knew they were coming, that hadn’t happened yet. It took him two world wars to realize that he couldn’t do anything to stop any of it. What was the use of his going back in time if time would just happen the way it did? He’d figured that out too.

Even if it was possible to do it intentionally, why bother going back if it was just going to play out the way it had? He’d joined one group after another to try to stop it, been deeply involved in politics. He’d never found a way to talk about what he knew, people though he was eccentric or a crank and when what he warned of happened, they were afraid of him. Most of them. It could explain why no one seemed to travel back in time. If you couldn’t change it anyway, why do it?

After the last war had started he gave up. He was an old man, already, he would sit it out. He knew how it would turn out, that the millions would be slaughtered. He was powerless to change how it had already happened. If it was possible, he wouldn’t exist, his parents met during the war. If it hadn’t happened, he wouldn’t be here to make it not happen, he wasn’t part of the time he was forced to live through. He’d found some relief when he realized that he could still choose to try. That if he tried to make things better that would have been part of the past as well. He’d tried to reason it out but, in the end, it had just been a blind choice, to try to help someone. That didn’t make being a witness to it any less awful, he’d learned only about himself about the limits of his own abilities. He volunteered after the war to do relief work. He had come to believe that the people who would be helped had been helped and he would have to be there to do it. And he liked to work himself to exhaustion. He put everything into it. He only slept well when he was exhausted. He never talked about what he knew, people liked him when he was a hard working old man, who put in long hours, following the instruction of other people.

He was near the end now, he hoped. That’s why he’d decided to come and finally try this, one, last thing. To try to finally end it. Or to see if his theory was right, that he would be able to do this one thing, to make sure it couldn’t happen endlessly. To make sure he couldn’t be stuck in a never ending cycle of time, to suffer the same thing over and over. He was going to kill himself, when he was a boy, before that day in 1974. Preventative suicide, the odd phrase had gone through his head the night before, as he pictured the opportunity. But now it would have to wait till kindergarten let out and the boy was on his way to the bus.

He went back at eleven forty-five, watched the kids from the elementary school, the walkers, going home for lunch. He recognized several, he thought. He’d get it done before the workers in the tannery came out at noon time, he couldn’t risk one of them stopping him. He was determined not to weaken again. His hand went to the gun in his pocket, if he had it in his hand it would be faster.

While he watched, his mother came around the corner.... No, he closed his eyes and thought, searching for the memory of that day. Of all the days he choose this one. She was always busy, had only picked him up at school a few times. He opened his eyes and his gaze met his mother’s eyes. She was smiling, younger and thinner than he remembered. She smiled at him, the friendly smile she’d give an old man out of courtesy. She looked like she was surprised by him.... but her attention was immediately drawn to the children as the door opened.

She saw the boy and went over to him. She said, “Do you have to go to the bathroom”? He couldn’t help but smile broadly at the chagrin he knew he felt when she did that in front of other children. As if he ever wet his pants.

It was the day they went to see his grandmother, the last time he saw her. His mother had done some shopping for her parents. He would learn later that they didn’t tell her she was dying. But she must have known, she wasn’t stupid. It was his grandfather who hadn’t been able to face the telling her.

X remembered now, his mother had picked him up from school that day, today. In the dark blue panel wagon. He knew it was parked on the other side of the building. It had been one of the best days, he remembered. Sweet and sad and good. He didn’t know his grandmother was dying, didn’t understand the strange muslin nightgown she had on in bed. But he always remembered how she had smiled at him, the sound of her voice. It would be the last time his mother took him to see her.

X noticed that the boy had looked up at him, their eyes met.

The boy looked curiously at him and smiled shyly. And he remembered it, looking up, seeing the old man who was looking at him so deeply. He thought the man was going to walk over to them and say something. He was terrified of strangers he remembered that and this one as so strangely familiar. But it was more than strange now, X could see both the boy looking at him and his memory of looking up and seeing the old man looking at him.

It was something he’d remembered for years after. It was like the man was looking into his soul. And he remembered being scared at how much he looked like his grandfather. And he remembered, when he was older he saw the old man again. More than once. He knew the old man had wanted to see him, he only had the most uneasy ideas of why.

It felt so strange, to understand something that he’d forgotten bothered him so many years before. Something he had forgotten but that he hadn’t.

But, X heard his mother say, “Come on, your brother might be awake. I left him sleeping in the car”. It was a gentle, affectionate prod. She was happy, he couldn’t do it to her. Not with her mother dying, not in her view. In a second, they were gone and he turned away. He heard the car start. Did it sound familiar? He knew it would drive off in the opposite direction, to get to his grandparents. He wouldn’t see it from here.

He knew he wouldn’t do it now. Not now that he’d seen her again. He had given her so much to worry about, years of trouble. But he knew if her son was murdered now, ... her life would be so different. Fourteen years of bitter regret before the one that would actually come. Maybe she would blame herself, he knew her, she was just like him, she’d have blamed herself for not stopping it. Living the rest of her life sorry that she hadn’t died instead of him.

He walked over to the river and began to cross the bridge. It was no good. He wasn’t a killer. Not even of himself. He discreetly took the gun from his pocket and dropped it in the water. It made a hollow plunk and was gone.

He wouldn’t come back.... He looked for a last time on the town square, exactly as it had been that day, a happy day for him.

It really hadn’t been that bad a life, he’d survived it. It wouldn’t be for him.... As he grew up, isolated, lonely, shy, homely.... He really had been an ugly kid. That’s why he was unpopular, bullied. He learned a lot from it. Then a brief period of achievement and making his parents proud, then he didn’t know what. He might live long enough to know..... It wasn’t unheard of for people to live into their nineties in his family.

An idea came to him, maybe he’d tell them about it after wards, go see them, explain it. No, he couldn’t risk that, he’d probably die before then and they’d think he was insane if he told them.

He would write them a letter.... To be delivered after it happened.... A few months or a year after it happened, telling them about what happened and how he realized he could leave them a written message, in time, in care of a lawyer to be given to them on this day. He’d choose one young enough to tell them that he’d gotten the package years before from an old man. He could put photographs in it, from after he had gone back, the clippings of his volunteer work after the war. But.... would it be crueler than his disappearing. They’d think a sadist had done it to torment them. He closed his eyes and felt tears sting them. Everything about this was a torment, everything idea to break out of it a disappointing failure. He was stuck in alternative possibilities that produced noting but indecision.

Maybe he’d do it, finally, kill himself before he was thrown back into time, right at the point he knew it would happen. If he lived that long. He’d have to make sure they didn’t find the gun or there would be fingerprints. They’d think it was a suicide.....

X had his fingerprints taken by a state trooper when he was in the fourth grade, everyone had in those years of postwar paranoia. Those would be on file. He smiled, he’d do it, he could have a set of fingerprints taken when he left it with the lawyer. He could have everything notarized, witnessed by people who could tell them. Document everything.

This would take some planning.

c. Summer 1977