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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Hourglass

Two men, two pints of Guinness, an ethical dilemma... and an hourglass.

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The Hourglass


            Chad Tarlow consulted his watch.  Seven thirty.  Plenty of time for a pint – only one, as usual, both because the beer he liked was expensive, and also because he needed to be lucid when he got back to his apartment.  He still had about five hours of reading and writing to do for his graduate classes, and he’d seen the results of writing papers in an alcohol-induced fog.  He only had two semesters left and he’d have his master’s degree and his teaching license; no sense screwing it up now.
            He sat at the bar, and gave a smile to Valerie, the cute bartender.  Valerie, he knew, was taken, in a long-term relationship with a guy who worked for the college as some kind of environmental researcher.  No use to hit on her.  He did a slow look around the bar, to see if there were any other prospects, but Flanagan’s was pretty dead.  Oh, well, he thought.  Not like I have time for a girlfriend.  He sighed, and turned back to find a foamy pint of Guinness waiting for him.
            “Saw you come in,” Valerie said, grinning and wiping her hands on a towel.
            “I’m getting predictable,” Chad said.
            “Nothing wrong with knowing what you want,” Valerie said, and headed off to the other end of the bar to pour a drink for an elderly man who looked like he’d already had one too many.
            The door opened, letting in a rush of cool autumn air, and a few dead leaves.  Chad looked up from his pint and saw, with a pang of disappointment, that the newcomer was a young man.  He was perhaps 25, with tousled curly hair, dark eyes, and an angular jaw that was in need of a shave.  He stopped for a moment, and glanced around the place as if looking for someone.
            Not many single women here tonight, bud, Chad thought.  Hope you weren’t counting on getting any.
            The man seemed to consider leaving, then with a little shrug came up to the bar, sitting two barstools away.  Valerie came over to the newcomer.  “What can I get you?” she asked.
            “You have Guinness on tap?”
            “Yup.”
            “A pint, then,” he said, and slid a ten-dollar bill toward her.
            She drew the pint, and while it was settling she gave him his change, and said, “You from around here?  Haven’t seen you in here before.”
            “I live in Skaneateles,” he said.  “My first time in here.”
            She slid the pint toward him.  “Nice town, Skaneateles,” she said.
            “That it is.”
            Valerie went to attend to the elderly gentleman, who was waving at her in a rather woozy fashion, leaving Chad and the newcomer with their pints and the awkward silence that always descends between people who are strangers but who are forced to be near each other by circumstance.
            “What do you do in Skaneateles?” Chad finally said, feeling that he couldn’t just sit there without saying anything, drink his beer, and then leave.  But once said, it sounded ridiculous – an empty sentence, like “Have a nice day.”
            But the newcomer smiled just a little, and said, “I’m a writer.”
            “Really?  What do you write?”
            “Novels.  Science fiction, mainly, and some fantasy.  Mostly speculative stuff.”
            “That’s cool.”  Chad swiveled a little towards him.  “I’ve always wondered how writers think of their plots.  Especially you science fiction guys – I mean, you not only have to make up your plot and characters and all, you have to invent a whole world.”
            The man smiled again, and took a sip of his pint.  “I get asked that a lot,” he said.  “By the way, my name’s Aaron.”  He extended his hand, which Chad shook.
            “Chad.  I’m a grad student in education.  Heading toward teaching physics in high school – provided, of course, that I can get a job.”
            Aaron nodded.  “Not easy, these days.”
            “But you work from home.  Pretty cool.  You just write stories, and your customers come to you.”
            He looked down.  “Something like that.”  He glanced over at the window for a moment, again seeming like he was looking for something or someone.  Then he turned back toward Chad.  “It’s usually the plots that get me stuck.  It can take a long time to work out plot points, because in science fiction, everything’s got to hang together.  The readers immediately pick up on it if there’s an inconsistency.”
            “How do you work it out when you get stuck?”
            Aaron shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Usually the solution just comes to me sooner or later.  I’m not sure from where.  But when I get badly stuck, sometimes it takes weeks to figure my way through it.”  He paused.  “In fact, I’m trying to work something out right now.  It’s why I went for a drive today – to try to clear my brain and see if I could figure out how the story should go.”
            “What are you stuck on?” Chad asked.
            “You want me to tell you?” Aaron said, his eyebrows lifting a little.  “I don’t want to bore you.”
            “It won’t bore me.  Look, dude, I have several hours of reading educational philosophy when I get home.  Anything you could come up with would be fascinating by comparison.”
            Aaron laughed.  “All right,” he said.  “It’s a time travel story.”
            “Okay.”
            “But the time travel isn’t really the point.  I mean, it’s not like The Time Machine, where it went into the fictional technology and all.  Even though it depends on being able to reverse the hourglass, this story focuses more on an ethical dilemma.  And I want to make sure that the story works out the right way.  You know, not corny or trite.  And I’m not sure what to do.”
            “So, when does the character travel to?”
            Aaron took another pull on his pint.  “Here’s the deal.  The main character is a nice guy, but he had a really shitty childhood.  His mother was a complete whackjob.  Borderline personality, controlling, manipulative.”  He gestured with one hand.  “The kind of woman who should never be allowed to have children.  But like a lot of borderlines, she appeared normal enough on first glance; in fact, she was kind of a magnetic personality.  Most people figured out soon enough that she was psycho – she lost job after job, and so on.  And made her son’s life miserable.”
            “Poor kid,” Chad said.
            Aaron nodded.  “The main character’s father was a decent guy, kept trying to help his wife, even though she was kind of beyond help, and stayed in the marriage to shield his son as much as he could.  But the mom was nuts enough that it didn’t really help; and when the main character was 17, his mom had a total flip-out and killed his dad.  She ended up in jail.”
            “Wow,” Chad said.  “Seriously heavy stuff.”
            “Yup.  So, anyway, that’s the setup.  That’s all in the past, in the story; the reader just finds out about it in the first few chapters.  The son grows up, and he’s got a shitload of baggage from what he went through as a kid.  I mean, graduating from high school – mom’s in jail for killing dad.  The kind of thing most kids never have to deal with.”
            “I hope not,” Chad said.  “I don’t know what I’d do if something like that happened to one of my students.”
            Aaron shrugged.  “I guess it happens sometimes.  Teachers got to deal with all sorts of stuff they wish they’d never had to see.  In fact, in the story, it’s the main character’s teachers, and some of his dad’s relatives, that save him.  So, anyway, he grows up, mostly normal, but has all of this psychotic stuff in his past.  Then, time travel is invented.  Scientists find a way to send people backwards, forwards, whatever you want.  And the guy gets an idea; what if he goes back in time, and stops his mom from meeting his father?”
            “Seriously?  Like Back to the Future, only in reverse?”
            Aaron smiled.  “Sort of like that.  He knows that if he does that, he’ll save his father from twenty years in a horrible relationship, that will end with his being shot to death by the woman he’d married.  But of course, you see the dilemma.”
            “If he succeeds, he’ll cease to exist.”
            Aaron nodded.  “And I have to be able to answer the question, confidently enough that what my character does makes sense.  You know?  If I’m not sure, I won’t be able to write it convincingly.  So, I guess the question is: do you save someone decades of unhappiness and an early death, at the cost of your own life?  Or do you save your own life even if it means someone you care about will be miserable?”
            “The father might have been just as miserable had he not met the mom,” Chad said.  “You never know.”
            “That’s true.  But even so.  What should he do?”  Aaron held up one hand, palm upwards.  “It’s just a story, after all; I can make it come out whatever way I want.”
            “Is the main character happy with his life?” Chad said.  “I mean, if he’s screwed up himself, maybe he’d be better off, you know… not existing.  Kind of a clean suicide.”
            “I didn’t want to make it that clear-cut,” Aaron said.  “That seemed too corny.  Like, he’s just wanting out, so he goes back in time to kill himself painlessly and save dad the trauma as an added benefit.  In the story, he’s kind of ordinary – some days good, some days bad.  He’s got some memories and shit to deal with, yeah – but he’s not, like, despondent or anything.”
            “Wow,” Chad said.  “That’s a really interesting question.  I can see why you’re stuck.”
            Aaron smiled, and took another drink.  “A puzzler, isn’t it?”
            “Well,” Chad said, “here’s an idea.  Maybe he should go back in time, you know… and present the idea to the dad.  Tell him what is going to happen.  Let the dad decide.”
            “That’s kind of a cop-out.”
            “Yeah, but, you know, see if the dad thinks all the misery would be worth it, to have a kid.”
            “How could the dad judge that?  You know, condemn himself to twenty years of misery, and knowing he’d be killed at the end of it by the woman he’d married?  Do you really think anyone would be willing to do that voluntarily?”
            “I don’t know,” Chad said.  “Maybe it’s a good thing we don’t know our futures.”
            “Believe me,” Aaron responded, with some vigor, “since I started working on this story, I’ve thought about that many times.”
            Chad finished his pint.  “Well, I’ve got to get going,” he said.
            “Educational philosophy waits for no man,” Aaron said, smiling a little.
            “Nope.  And, with luck, once I’m actually teaching I’ll never have to read this crap again.”
            Aaron laughed.  “That’s why I stick to writing science fiction,” he said.  “People actually want to read it.”
            Chad stood up, and shook Aaron’s hand.  “Good luck with your story,” he said.  “I think it’s an interesting idea.  I’m sure you’ll work it out.”
            “I hope so,” Aaron said.
            Chad picked up his backpack from next to the barstool, and said goodbye to Valerie.  As he was approaching the door, it opened, admitting another gust of cool air.  A woman walked in – slim, with shoulder-length brown hair and sparkling blue eyes.  She glanced his way, and smiled a little.
            No boyfriend in tow, Chad thought suddenly.  Okay, do I really need to stop at one pint?  I have time for another, right?
            Chad opened his mouth to say something to her – his usual pickup line was, “Can I buy you a drink, or would you prefer to break my heart?”, which worked about 50% of the time, and in the other half of the cases just resulted in an eyeroll.  But something in him just seemed to stall.  The words would not form, and the smile died on his lips.
            The woman walked past him, and up to the bar.  Chad turned to watch her.  And up on a shelf, behind the bar, was something he had never noticed before – a large hourglass in an ornate wooden frame, filled with white sand.  Valerie turned away from the elderly gentleman, who was finally paying his tab and seemed to be trying to determine if he could successfully stand up.  The woman sat down on one of the barstools at the otherwise empty bar, crossed her legs at the ankles, and rested her elbows on the polished mahogany top, smiling at Valerie and saying something too quietly for Chad to hear.  Valerie smiled, and turned – and then picked up the hourglass and flipped it over.
            Chad watched the stream of sand spilling downwards for a moment, a distant expression on his face, like someone just waked from dreaming.  Then he walked out, alone, into the windy October night.

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