A timebolt. I don’t know what else to call it. I imagine it sped from the void with random trajectory, arcing through systems unhindered before Earth and my family in that car, ignoring my once Newtonian mind, and finding me quite by chance. An impossible accident from the heavens. And yet—maybe this has happened before, just one more phenomenon in a boundless vacuum filled with inflation and gravity waves, black and white holes. My body was inexplicably left behind. And I became a time traveler.
I’ve always wanted to be a father. A good one. The kind who grills and cuts grass and throws balls, rolls in the dirt, removes splinters and threatens bullies, reads bedtime stories in the glow of a night-light. The kind who is there.
I was taken from my own father not long after my first birthday, and I didn’t see him again until I was thirteen. His name was Jimmy and he was thin and bearded with chambered, down-turned eyes just like my own. It was warm on the day that I met him, I remember, but he shivered with alcoholism. He was nice enough and talked about Jesus and Waylon Jennings like they were similar people, but when I began throwing rocks at his cat in the front yard, Jimmy yelled “Cut it out, boy!” and I decided without words that I would never see him again. And I didn’t.
Jimmy hung himself twelve years later with an electrical cord, his breakfast still cooking on the stove. I didn’t feel guilty, but I felt something.
I am at the beginning and the end of this at once, and I can’t get a handle on it. I feel outside of things. There was a collision, I know. There was the caustic agony of impact as my corner of the vehicle surged in on me, but I felt nothing soon enough. Now I am here.
I miss them already, my wife, my daughter and son with their yellow hair and need for me, taken from me by a universe which believes such bonds, my earthly body even, to be cumbrous and of no use. Which is to say there was intent. But I have seen no proof of intent. No evidence of a guiding hand. It doesn’t matter. I shot from my life to this new death, where I can see the moments before me now as if on stage.
I am there in the car with my wife beside me and our children in the back, unaware of how big everything will soon be, how ghostly and distant it is now that I am gone and free from time. I must be dead, but something more. Not simply dead.
All I want is to be with them again. My wife in the passenger seat, stunned but breathing around the airbag, our uninjured and wailing children. I had noticed the drunken swerving in those headlights before me and used what fractions of time remained. I turned the wheel to ensure that I would take the worst of it.
My children will not understand their loss, and I want to go back to them. I want to go back four years to when my daughter was born in a cold white room and I had seen my wife’s innards and that baby with one ear folded too much over. I can see her there now, elfish. She cries for the first time and I watch myself in a medical mask crying too, and I realize that I can move this way. That time is navigable.
My grief is still fresh, and I feel there is a signal in my brain making this work. I can sense the electricity of it, propelling me backward to this temporal coordinate within a coordinate system within another coordinate system, and I somehow know, I understand. The signal is a time engine plotting points, and here I am at one such point in the past with them and myself, observing, feeling no better about things.
Okay. So, this is what I must do. Forever. Be in these places.
In the years before I met my biological father, Jimmy, there were stand-ins. My mother married a man named Duke who provided me with a new last name and made me call him Dad until I reached an age suitable for mischief. Five or so. Duke was different after that, the discipline began, the spankings with a weight-lifting belt, the choking and screaming, the punching of walls.
Duke was a football man, domed pauldron shoulders and a moustache. He threw my mother across the living room once and I attacked him outright, battered my fists against his trunkish legs to no avail. I was only seven years old—my impact was negligible. But it was the effort that was important. I’d made a stand and it was a defining moment. I swore that night in the dark of my bedroom that when my time came, I would be a different sort of man.
I am many years before now, watching as I meet my biological father for the first time. I am thirteen, dark skinned with a face freckled like a brown chicken egg, summer insects swelling in the humidity as hours later I whip driveway rocks at a natty calico, and Jimmy scolds me from across the yard, and so on and so forth.
But moments before this one, I can see Jimmy standing at his grill beside his new wife asking her if he should say anything to me. “I have no right,” he says. His wife is squat and round and says, “No, go on, you’re his daddy.” Jimmy blinks a lot, which I hadn’t noticed at the time. He stumbles once before approaching my younger self and opens his mouth, and I think now that I should stop him. Don’t do this, I should say, you will drive me away and doom yourself to whatever torment leads to your suicide.
I used to wonder how my father was able to let go of me so easily, even if my mother was difficult. Which she was. She hit him with a toy wheelbarrow on the day that she left, told him he was drunk trash and no good for taking up with other women, and she drove off with me in a car-seat. Jimmy could have at least tried to stop her, tried for partial custody.
I traveled back in time once to watch him in the hours after we left. He did not seem like a man abandoned by his family. Jimmy closed the front door and grabbed a beer from the fridge and sat in his recliner, listened to a David Allan Coe record for the next half hour. He smiled when the chorus came for a second time. Then he fell asleep.
I think now that I should go back to 1976, to just before Jimmy meets my mother in Oxena Newsstand and Café over eggs and coffee. And so, I do. I go back and there he is with his long and dark feathered hair and his face clean shaven, his boots clacking down the sidewalk on Martin Street in downtown Elizabeth City, the spring wind blowing dust up behind him. This was a side of him I’d never heard about, in a time before booze took hold. He seems joyous in his youth, confident. I can see something of my own face.
Minutes from now Jimmy will walk into the café and see my mother, a waitress with thick black eyelashes and podgy lips, a near Jessi Colter, he will call her, though she is only sixteen. And Jimmy is thirty, but they’ll hide that well enough. He will convince her of so much, damage her greatly.
I can stop Jimmy right now, I can interfere. I will be a poltergeist to frighten him away from this street so that I will never be born, and I will never be forced to feel this loss. But if I’m not born, I will never live or die or travel to this moment, and so what then—I’ll be stuck in a paradox. I will loop and loop forever without origin, never truly living, but still. Okay.
I rush headlong into Jimmy and pass cleanly through him. I go through and he feels nothing. I change nothing.
Much later. If time were being measured, I would be a traveler of it for weeks now, months even. I learned at some point that déjà vu is the signal in my brain, the time engine connecting me to the existential ocean of humanity on the Earth, and so I have been to the days of Jesus and ancient Babylon, 16th century Edo, the Nubian kingdom of Kerma, the old American West, Italy during the Renaissance, 5th century Chichen Itza, the Middle Paleolithic period. There exists a cosmic barrier I do not understand, permitting only backward travel, only so far as Homo sapiens’s evolution allows, beyond which it fades to dark, like Jung’s collective unconscious made manifest, and all I have seen stirs me very little anymore. Scenes on a screen of tachyons I cannot change.
I am most always with myself and my wife and daughter and son at an outdoor museum exhibit where massive dinosaur statues have been placed along a forest path, and my son is shouting “di-sore, di-sore,” running ahead of us with his sister pointing out which dinosaur is what—ankylosaur, parasauralophus, apatasaurus, and so on.
My daughter is four here, my son only two. And when I look at my wife, I can see her looking at me and myself not looking back, because on this day I was already old in love, bored of it, but I can see now that she was not and how foolish I’d been.
I am most always here because, while it may not be the happiest day of my life, it is the day I felt most like a father.
I have avoided traveling to the coordinates where and when my father hung himself. I don’t want to know that it was my fault, that I am responsible for a man’s death. But it occurs to me now that I have learned much from the myriad moments I have observed—I saw my mother begging my one-time stepfather, Duke, not long before their divorce, to be gentler with her son as I slept off a beating in the bedroom above them. Duke said “I know, I know, forgive me, I know” as he pressed her onto the waterbed, and I never knew that my mother knew at all. I don’t know what that says about her.
I have learned plenty from history in general—Shakespeare was a practicing druid, for example. He took part in blood rituals that allowed him to see backward in time, through the eyes of his ancestors. He never understood what he saw, a jumble of strobing shadows and color schisms, but still.
Myself, I am still lousy with questions. I wonder if my father’s death might provide answers.
I am in the kitchen. The gas stove is avocado green, and link sausages hiss and sputter there in a cast iron skillet. The smell is overwhelming, the sage and fusty meat smoke. Jimmy sits in a chair at a small wooden table picking at a guitar, playing a familiar tune. “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” he croons. My mother said Jimmy loved outlaw country because it glorified men on their ass, excused drunkards and adulterers. And Jimmy was both. I think of the drunk driver who forced me from my life and feel a swell of rage as relentless as the head-on collision. I resist the urge to leave this moment.
I look upon my father. He seems so small. His gut is visible through the stretched front of his button-up, his knees geologic anomalies in such tight jeans that reveal the wasted boniness of his legs. His long, brown hair is badgered by grey and thinning. A mug of coffee steams before him, and I imagine he must be thinking of me now, his lost son, because he blinks, and a tear runs a line down his cheek. He exhales.
Jimmy stands and walks to the entrance to his living room, which is in a state of disrepair, unpainted walls and plywood flooring, and the entryway is not yet insulated, no sheetrock there, only the framing and header box where Jimmy tosses up the end of an orange extension cord. He ties it off. He brings his chair over and stands on it, ties the other end of the cord around his neck. He sniffles once and kicks the chair over.
And in this moment, I am full of remorse for avoiding him for so long, letting him do this to himself. And as he swings from side-to-side, choking, saliva bubbling on his lips, he looks right at me—because we are of the same blood and there is power in blood, and he is dying, maybe, I don’t know, but he recognizes me, and I scream “No!” and he gapes at me, sees me, he does. I swear he does.
Jimmy reaches up to his neck, fidgeting with the simple knot in the cord digging into his jugular, and I am sure he will not succeed, that Jimmy will die this confused and hopeful, that he will die as he always has. Because time is fixed and immutable.
But Jimmy doesn’t die. He crashes to the floor, spitting and hacking, gulping deep breaths of air. He says, “I can’t,” to himself. “No, no,” he goes. And though he doesn’t say it or look at me again, I am sure that he saw me. Everything will be different now.
I travel forward to a temporal coordinate within the same coordinate system newly spawned by Jimmy’s survival to a summer day in my backyard almost one year later. Jimmy had taken my spectral appearance as a sign from God to reconnect, and I apparently obliged him.
Jimmy and my wife sit beside me on our screened porch drinking Michelobs and talking about music and the 1970s in loving and disingenuous ways. The sounds, the wide spaces and roadways, the counterculture, it was all the best in those days, Jimmy explains. My wife and I nod in agreement, certain it was not.
I watch as our children play in the yard. Jimmy laughs as my son stumbles face-first into the grass, his hair flaring white in the sunshine. Jimmy hollers, “Get up, boy, you’re okay.” And I smile because everything is okay. But—in my mind—I notice a newer waypoint.
I travel forward another year, two months, fourteen days, eleven hours, twenty-two minutes, and eight seconds to the same kitchen and Jimmy playing the same guitar, singing “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” But the entryway where he’d tried to hang himself previously has been fixed, and the living room appears newly renovated. The carpeting is oatmeal colored and the walls are painted blue. And on the kitchen table before Jimmy this time is a wallet-sized photograph of a young boy, six or seven-years-old. The boy’s eyes are as down-turned as my own—and Jimmy’s. And I see the twelve-gauge in the corner, and I know what will happen here. I look at the photograph again and realize that I am not the only child Jimmy abandoned. I feel relieved and foolish. I am not his only sin.
I travel backward from the temporal coordinate of Jimmy’s initial suicide attempt—nine years, three months, three weeks, seven days, one hour, thirty-nine minutes, and fifty-one seconds before, to a waypoint now flaming from my realization that Jimmy is an old-hand at desertion. That I am neither the first nor the last of his great regrets.
And I am now at a Georgia campground stippled by tents and picnic tables and pine trees allowing very little moonlight beneath the canopy. It is almost full dark. There is a red tent beside a green ’77 Datsun pickup with the engine running and the windows down, music wafting from inside the cab. The song is Waylon Jennings’ “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”
I move closer to the red tent, and from within I can hear a man’s voice, Jimmy’s voice in the dark whispering “lower, go lower,” and then comes the small voice of a young boy laughing, saying “no,” as if it were a joke. And the hushed voice of the man says again “lower,” and I turn away. I flee from this moment with the speed of one unencumbered by space and time.
I move forward to the last moment I’m able to witness, the minutes before the crash and my departure from the time stream. I am immobile in the driver’s seat, oblivious. I remember in this moment how I wondered at a world before automobiles, the harsh days of horse travel. I see the wrinkles in my brow as I think of it.
I wait for that celestial strike. I want to leave and go backward to that morning, in our bedroom again to see my wife in the bed uncovered, in her underwear, the shapes of her I love and miss—or upstairs to where my children sleep, but I don’t. I have done so forever, and now I must focus. This timebolt is unaffected by the changes I have made, and I need to catch myself at the precise moment. My father had sensed me from the rim of death, because I was there in some way and perhaps because we share blood. There is power in blood, the druids knew well. And this is me here, the blood in these veins my very own. I know now this is not my death, but my emergence from time. And so, I need to somehow reach out to explain to myself that I must never wander or explore. I must stay on the dinosaur trail with my family, because it is better. I am undone by the knowledge that I share blood with an evil man, and it is better not to know what he did or who he was, to let him hang for his crimes and count myself lucky to have never been at his mercy. I must stay in the moment where I am the best father I know and that is all I know.
I can see it begin. A sudden electro-temporal discharge allowing regions in the air around me to equalize just before my brain goes, and I reach out, I call out and I am fading, hearing my warning from outside of the continuum, now looping between two realities where I have stopped myself from learning what caused me to stop myself—but I have also lived a life and been a good father and I can feel it all—I have witnessed the rise of mankind and great civilizations, the love of my wife, the birth of my children. And this new me emerges out of time, preserving an alternate memory of my father in this paradox, where I do not know all that I know. I forget. And I remember. I forget.