A Brief Version of Time
Suppose that people live forever.
Strangely, the population of each city splits in two: the Laters and the Nows.
The Laters reason that there is no hurry to begin their classes at the university, to learn a second language, to read Voltaire or Newton, to seek promotion in their jobs, to fall in love, to raise a family. In endless time, all things can be accomplished. Thus all things can wait. Indeed, hasty actions breed mistakes. And who can argue with their logic? The Laters can be recognized in any shop or promenade. They walk an easy gait and wear loose-fitting clothes. They take pleasure in reading whatever magazines are open or rearranging furniture in their homes, or slipping into conversation the way a leaf falls from a tree. The Laters sit in cafes sipping coffee and discussing the possibilities of life.
The Nows note that with infinite lives, they can do all they can imagine. They will have an infinite number of careers, they will marry an infinite number of times, they will change their politics infinitely. Each person will be a lawyer, a bricklayer, a writer, an accountant, a painter, a physician, a farmer. The Nows are constantly reading new books, studying new trades, new languages. In order to taste the infinities of life, they begin early and never go slowly. And who can question their logic? The Nows are easily spotted. They are the owners of the cafes, the college professors, the doctors and nurses, the politicians, the people who rock their legs constantly whenever they sit down. They move through a succession of lives, eager to miss nothing. When two Nows chance to meet at the hexagonal pilaster of the Zahringer Fountain, they compare the lives they have mastered, exchange information, and glance at their watches. When two Laters meet at the same location, they ponder the future and follow the parabola of the water with their eyes.
The Nows and Laters have one thing in common. With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives. Grandparents never die, nor do great-grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles, great-great-aunts, and so on, back through the generations, all alive and offering advice. Sons never escape from the shadows of their father. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own.
When a man starts a business, he feels compelled to talk it over with his parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, ad infinitum, to learn from their errors. For no new enterprise is new. All things have been attempted by some antecedent in the family tree. Indeed, all things have been accomplished. But at a price. For in such a world, the multiplication of achievements is partly divided by the diminishment of ambition.
And when a daughter wants guidance from her mother, she cannot get it undiluted. Her mother must ask her mother, who must ask her mother, and so on forever. Just as sons and daughters cannot make decisions themselves, they cannot turn to parents for confident advice. Parents are not the source of certainty. There are one million sources.
Where every action must be verfified one million times, life is tentative. Bridges thrust halfway over rivers and then abruptly stop. Buildings rise nine stories high but have no roofs. The grocer’s stocks of ginger, salt, cod, and beef change with every change of mind, every consultation. Sentences go unfinished. Engagements end just days before weddings. And on the avenues and streets, people turn their heads and peer behind their backs, to see who might be watching.
Such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free. Over time, some have determined that the only way to live is to die. In death, a man or a woman is free of the weight of the past. These few souls, with their dear relatives looking on, dive into Lake Constance or hurl themselves from Monte Lema, ending their infinite lives. In this way, the finite has conquered the infinite, millions of autumns have yielded to no autumns, millions of snowfalls have yielded to no snowfalls, millions of admonitions have yielded to none.
I want him to see the flowers in my eyes and hear the songs in my hands.
I WET my lips with the tip of my tongue, leave it protruding for a beat, reel it back in. Is she watching? She must know I do it for her. Is she watching? I sit up straight, order whiskey, no rocks. Is she watching? I laugh, make a joke. Is she watching? I walk to the men’s room, saunter. Is she watching? I return, swing my leg over the back of the chair, knock over a bottle of beer. Damn, is she watching? Is she watching?
SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL, fragile, and afraid, a peacock in a hailstorm. We sat together on the couch, waiting for the car horn. It sounded at last and I held her hand as we pushed through the snow in the driveway. I turned away after I buckled her into the back seat. Don wouldn’t look at me, but reached back, touched her knee. I watched them drive off, then walked back to the house, careful not to step into her footprints.
AFTER SHE FLED he became his own wife, ironing in his underwear, dusting the shelves, moving the figurines to the dining-room table then replacing them carefully when he’d finished waxing the cabinet. Wearing her apron he often made casseroles. Sometimes he’d sit on her closet floor and move his face through her dresses, like a dog searching in a field of high grass.
—Lou Beach. The stories were written as status updates on a large social-networking site. These updates were limited to 420 characters, including letters, spaces, and punctuation.
Illustration by the author.
Wrapped in a book,
I am kindling for quiet,
one ear listening
for the white heat
of silence, of home.