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“You think you want to know the future, but you already do. That’s normal human experience.”

shed window emanating light

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Tom entered the shed and turned on the overhead light. He edged over to let Sarah in. He motioned for her to close the door behind her. Sarah motioned that this was ridiculous. It drifted on its hinges and partially closed on its own. He shuffled over to the wall to the right of the door, the nail holding the rake snagging his t-shirt for an inch before releasing it. There wasn’t much room. It seemed a mistake to be in here wearing flip-flops. She kept her ankles as close together as possible without falling over while she found a level spot. Sarah looked around, which didn’t take long: The gas lawn mower; the partially filled hole described in his hilarious groundhog invasion story at the cookout last Saturday night; six useless flowerpots, cracked and spilling dirt; and the time machine.

“That’s the time machine?” Sarah asked, since he hadn’t offered.

“That’s the time machine,” he assured her. He sounded not proud. His tone was flat, nearly embarrassed. He did not add anything.

Sarah looked at the gray tube standing there, broken flower pots tumbled against one side and a torn bag of mulch leaning against the far side. There were no blinking lights, nor anything else to suggest it was electronic, or powered by any means. It was cylindrical, almost eight feet tall and four in diameter. If it had a door, it was pushed against the wall.

Tom still had not said anything more, though he seemed to expect her to add something. She looked at the thing. It was slightly big enough for a decent shower; now she could not get the image of a time-traveling shower stall out of her head. She could not make out what the thing was made out of; it was dirty, crammed in the corner behind everything else.

“I didn’t expect it to be so filthy,” she said.

Tom nodded his eyebrows. “Well, like I say, it’s been out here awhile.”

“But it can actually travel through time?”

“And space, up to a point,” he said. “You can set it to adjust for the earth’s rotation, so it sort of ‘slides’ from place to place, so then you stay in one spot and you’re at the mercy of where the earth has spun at that point. Kind of like a roulette wheel.”

Sarah listened to this carefully, looking for the joke. She wasn’t worried about being in a tight shed with a man she hardly knew with the door bumping her shoulder in the middle of the night. It was too cramped to do much more than talk and watch him drink his beer. If he were dangerous this would be an awkward place for him to do anything except watch her back up out of the door.

He was a fairly good-looking guy, which is why she’d come over. He had a dry sense of humor. He had a way of describing his plans in a way that made him sound believably sincere, steady, determined though perhaps for very short-term objectives, such as finding the best cargo shorts that could support his keys and phone without wrapping around his legs and banging his private parts when cycling. He had muscular legs. He seemed heavier than she’d noticed over the weekend; possibly the lighting in the shed throwing a shadow across his t-shirted gut, but she found him cuddly. She herself regretted wearing shorts to stand this close to yard debris.

Sarah had met Tom at the beginning of the summer when he did some freelance work writing a marketing brochure for her t-shirt shop. He’d gone to college with her graphic designer. There had been drinks. Then cookouts. Then he said he had a time machine. Last summer her best friend had been obsessed with zombie shows. Summers are like that, once the Fourth’s over and there’s nothing to look forward to except heat and other people’s travel stories.

And now, a time machine, which Tom had only mentioned in answer to Sarah’s question, Can I stash my bike in your shed while I visit my sister in San Diego? To which Tom replied, No, I have a time machine.

“Can I ask where it came from?”

He wet his whistle. Victory Hop Devil, not what she would have chosen on a hot night.

“It was my dad’s.”

Sarah nodded and drew on her Stella Artois. “Sure.”

“My mother was in a ‘de-cluttering’ phase and my dad didn’t want to get rid of it, and I had this shed, so … ”

“And you can go anywhere in space and time?”

“Not anywhere” he said. “Well, mostly anywhere, I suppose.”

“But you can’t just go in space, not time?”

He flinched; this seemed to be a sore point. “Well, see … suppose we hopped in right now and went to Rio. Wouldn’t be there five minutes before the credit card company started calling to report my credit card was showing activity in Rio de Janeiro, must be fraudulent, your card is frozen. Meanwhile, my passport wouldn’t be stamped because I didn’t come through Customs, so a lot to explain there. Plus I don’t speak the language and I don’t have my shots, so not a good weekend.”

Sarah thought about it. “I was thinking more like going from Philadelphia to Chicago for pizza and a show. We pay cash.”

“Okay, but remember it moves in space by fixing on the rotation of the earth. So, for instance, Rio is in the same time zone as Philadelphia, but given the earth’s rotation it might take six months to get there just sitting in the same spot and waiting for the earth to rotate under our feet. Inside the machine it would just be a minute. Obviously. So getting from Philadelphia to Chicago actually means traveling eight hours into the future to be in the spot Chicago will be in eight hours from now.”

“Chicago’s only an hour behind us,” she corrected.

“Ever driven it?”

“Oh. Right. Go on.”

“It’s actually faster to go to a Chicago show in 1974.” Sarah wasn’t sure now if he meant the city or the band. “That’s a completely random date, by the way, unless you hear otherwise.”

She noticed he hadn’t said anything about her saying “we” in her example. Then she was disturbed she was thinking of this as a real thing.

“Okay,” she said, “Chicago, 1974, a pork sandwich and then a blues show. No, wait, Second City. Or whatever. Or is cash a problem back then — the dates — ”

“No one ever looks at the dates on money,” he said.

“What about further back?”

He groaned a little. “How far … back?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “The Sixties. The Twenties. The Eighteen-Sixties.”

His hand jerked emphatically, involuntarily. “You do not want to go anywhere near the Eighteen-Sixties.”

“The war,” she murmured.

“That too,” he said. “Deodorant. Indoor plumbing. Laundry detergent. The further back you go, the worse it smells. About 1790 it levels off until the 1220s. Then the Dark Ages … might as well be called the Fart Ages.”

He drank some more.

Sarah looked at the greasy grass clipping-caked mower and imagined French peasants inventing the baguette while Tom stood around saying wet flour balls were good enough for him. “The Golden Age of Greece?” she ventured.

Tom grunted. “Sure, if you speak Ancient Golden Greek and don’t mind naked, oiled men wrestling all over the place, knocking your elbow when you try to eat.”

“All over the place, Tom? Really, Tom?”

He relaxed against the wall behind him, knocking the rake loose from its nail. She wanted to tell him his hair was getting shaggy and he needed a haircut, and was slightly alarmed she was getting so domestic about a guy she barely knew who was trying too hard to be cool. In a shed. “Okay, not everywhere,” he conceded. “Just the Olympics and the bath houses, but it gets on everything. Anyway, I don’t speak the language and I could hardly walk around dressed like this. And there’s the problem of money. Solid gold coins. And there’s their suspicion of strangers who dress funny, don’t speak the language, and have no money. They got into wars with their Greek neighbors, let alone a weird stranger.”

“Okay okay.” Sarah was getting impatient. “The Roaring Twenties. Pre-Prohibition. And enough with the bathing and the smells. Pre-prohibition beer!”

“You’re drinking Stella Artois. What do you care?”

“It was the only lager you had.”

He looked like he almost had an answer to that. But he didn’t. “Language,” he said. “You think you know a place, then you open your mouth and people say ‘Where are you from?’” He said it with the spritely tones of an old radio show announcer. “And — this surprised me — you think you know how to walk. Then you step out into the street and everyone has a different gait. I felt — you feel like a ballerina in a city of giant wobbly toddlers.”

Sarah wanted him to elaborate, but pressed on, more curious about his purpose in sticking with this story.

“The future then,” she said, raising her voice but not shouting yet. “When do we get real hoverboards?” She thought that was pretty funny. Tom didn’t.

“My dad went to the future.” He paused. He put the rake back on its nail.

“He came back, right?” she prompted.

“He came back,” he said. “You think you want to know the future, but you already do. That’s normal human experience. You meet your future child, but now your grandparents are dead. You meet your future grandchild, but now your friends all die. You don’t fit in, you don’t get the cultural references. The stuff you think is cool now is old-fashioned then. Then you come back and you know how your stuff is going to look outdated in sixty-three years so you no longer enjoy it in the present, which now is the past to you. But you already know this: How much music from high school do you still listen to? Songs are little time machines.”

He returned to his beer.

“So it’s just like turning thirty-two.”

He considered this. “You must have had a rough birthday.”

“I’m twenty-four. You thought I looked thirty-two? I was thinking of my sister.”

“Sorry,” he said.

He did not sound sorry.

The smell of gasoline and thick, wet grass clippings filled her nose. In the next yard she heard a woman laugh at the stupidest dog-eating-birthday-cake story ever. And here Sarah stood in a stuffy particle board shed with a strange man. A strange, shaggy headed, slightly overweight man she was debating whether or not she wanted to spend more time with, not in a shed. She estimated she had a third of a bottle left before this would be over.

“Okay okay,” she tried, giving one more attempt to finish this off. “But the future. You could get hot stick tops — hot stock tips.” She checked her lips: working. “You’d be set for life.”

“My dad tried that,” Tom said. “Minor success.”

“Okay, but seeing the future — ”

“Yes?”

“I don’t know … hoverboards? Pick up the final volume of Game of Thrones?”

Tom groaned while taking a mouthful of ale; Sarah was impressed with the timing.

“Here’s the thing,” he said when his throat opened again. “Putting aside all the bad things you might find out about that might fill you with dread. And there are things. You know all the music or shows you loved ten years ago? And how much of that seems lame or horribly dated now? Imagine every single thing in your life feeling that way for the next sixty years, before it’s even happened yet. That’s what happens when you go into the future — all this becomes the Good Old Days.”

“You’re repeating yourself.”

“Exactly.”

They drank their beers in silence. Both noticed the final drams left were getting warm and flat but neither mentioned it. She looked at the time machine. Now it seemed to her to look more like an upended concrete drainpipe.

“I should clean that grass off the mower before it dries into a brick,” he said.

“So, Tom, I get the impression you’re not much of a traveler in general.”

“Well — ” he started. He paused thoughtfully, thoughtfully swigged, abruptly wiped his chin with the back of his hand. “Yeah … no, I guess not,” he conceded. “I go up to New York, Massachusetts, Vermont. By car. Fly out to my parents’ at Christmas. I get out, I go to shows and restaurants and coffee shops, hang out with friends.… Not big on international travel.”

“Got it,” she said.

“Probably would like London,” he acknowledged. “Pizza in Chicago sounds good.”

“It is,” Sarah said. “I know a place.”

They drank. That was the end of the beer. “You know Fergie’s?” he said.

“Love Fergie’s,” she said.

“I go to Fergies. Sometimes. Yeah,” he said. “We could go.”

“To Fergie’s?”

“Anywhere.”

“When you say ‘anywhere’ — ”

“It doesn’t have to be Fergie’s.”

“But where would you rather go, Tom?”

“I guess I am a bit of a homebody.”

Sarah looked at the time machine. Maybe a drainpipe, but she noticed it was too big to fit through the door.

She looked at the disused, neglected machine (if that’s what it was) and the fresh, soggy grass clumped on the lawn mower. Some moths had found the overhead light. One landed on Tom’s beard.

The map of her life opened to her. The journey from the hospital where she was born, to her schools, her cousins’ and her neighborhood friends, all defined by the word neighborhood, not the word state or nation or continent or even, she realized, the question What’s over there. She thought about how long she had stood, just now, right now, listening in a tiny room without thinking of moving to someplace bigger, wider, cleaner just beyond the thin wall. She thought she wanted to do things. She had not considered it until now, but what she wanted dictated where she did them, and wanting to do things under a Mediterranean sky, or an aurora borealis, or in a wheat field a thousand miles from here, these were not things on her list. She had not realized she was one of those people. She did not know if Tom was offering her a trip out of that, or if he was calling her bluff. She was not sure what would come next, but it would be here, not a distracting backdrop somewhere else, some time deliberately chosen. This did not mean she knew what to make of the massive goof standing next to her, trying not to look scared at what her response was about to be.

“Yeah, you know what?” she said. She knocked the shed door open with her butt and waved her bottle, signifying it was empty. “Me too.”

They walked out of the shed. He put out the light, and checked the latch again after he locked it.

The air was body warm on her face and sweet with grass and charcoal and candle wax and a thin vapor of weed carried through the wire fence, and after the low shed the sky seemed a long way up.

They walked back to the house through a cloud of fireflies. Sounds: crickets; the woman in the next yard laughing at another unheard joke; this time Sarah heard an undertone of an amused male companion as well. Tom’s arm brushed against hers, and she brushed back.

The kitchen was cooler and cozy, old-fashioned except for a futuristic espresso machine on the red linoleum counter.

“This is nice,” she said.

He appraised her. He surveyed the kitchen and wiped a spot on the counter, convenient to his hand.

“Is that how you clean?” she asked, noticing. “If it’s right under your hand, you clean it?”

“Eventually I get it all,” he explained, a bit proudly. “Yeah. Yeah, it is nice. I could do this all night long.”

He leveled a steady gaze at her.

This?” she said, mockingly swiping crumbs off the counter in front of the breadbox with a swipe that sent them to the table, glancing off the sugar bowl in the center.

“Yeah,” he said. “Sometimes I stand in my kitchen all night. Move right from pizza to beer to coffee. Perfect evening. I think there’s a toaster waffle there in the breadbox if you want it.”

“Aren’t you supposed to keep those frozen?”

“Not after you toast them.”

She nodded as if this were the most sensible statement in the world. Just before she drank some beer she muttered “Loon” and he finally cracked.

“All the things I said — ” he had to interrupt himself to laugh — “That’s what got to you? A waffle?”

“I bet you don’t even have a waffle in there,” she said. “You either have two stale English muffins or a car part.” She opened the breadbox: earbuds and a Stanley 6-in-1 screwdriver with four of six bits missing. Plus a bright blue waffle. She stabbed it with the screwdriver and held it at arm’s length. “Probably not a healthy breakfast choice. Anymore.”

He regarded it.

“Men are such overgrown babies, aren’t we? If you weren’t here I probably would eat that.”

“I doubt it,” she said. “You weren’t even sure it was food a second ago.”

He rooted around for more beers in the refrigerator. She dropped the waffle in the trash can.

“Have you ever actually used your dad’s machine?”

“Here’s the thing,” he answered quickly, retrieving two bottles. “I don’t like to go out. I had to go to Brooklyn yesterday. It was great — I like my friends, I like the food, I like the beer, had a great time.” He slowed down. “But the whole time there all I could think of was wouldn’t it be great to stand in my kitchen drinking a beer just like this?” He handed her a fresh beer. “With you?”

She looked down. This time it was a very good pilsner. “Did you just hit on me?” she asked as if she were asking if there were any crackers left.

He clearly was searching for a line more sincere than the ones scrolling through his head.

“Do you like going out?” he asked. “You seemed … well, we’ve only seen each other at social events, so I guess you do. You are socially comfortable.”

“Maybe you are too, if you’ve been to the same events,” she pointed out.

“No,” he said, with a certainty that stood out for its rarity with him.

“I’m actually not either,” she admitted.

“If the time machine works — worked — where would you want to go?”

She considered. “I’m stuck,” she admitted. “No idea.”

That hung in the air. Tom finally noticed the rip in the shoulder of his shirt.

“This summer … ” Sarah wasn’t sure what she was going to say here. “This summer has been, I don’t know, kind of different. Maybe it’s the heat. I was in a relationship, that broke up around Easter, and my grandmother died around the same time, and my business got some unexpected big contracts, and I’m turning twenty-five and I don’t understand how I ended up with a t-shirt business, but I’ll have my Masters in marketing in six months, so I think I’ll be changing careers soon. Though I don’t think it’s any of that. I don’t know. Does the time machine really work?”

Tom gazed anywhere but her face. “I have an electric toothbrush I never use. Technically it works, but it doesn’t matter.”

Sarah nodded, also not gazing in his direction. “I don’t know,” she said, finishing her original thought. “It’s just one of those summers. But I don’t normally go out this much, no.”

“So … Fergie’s tomorrow night?” he ventured.

She took her time. “Don’t usually play on a weeknight. Maybe.”

She left her beer on the table as she walked around it and took the beer out of his hand.

“Let’s get through Tuesday first,” she said.

They breathed in one another’s traces of sweat, and coconut shampoo, and grass, and beer, and, slowly, doubting, opening, leaned in at the same time, and waited.

Featured image: Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen and Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

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Comments

  1. Actually, I think this is a profound story as well as a charming one. The notion of a time machine, specifically, strikes us as silly, particularly because it’s occurring in an otherwise realist story. But the concept the guy is putting forth is not silly: we think we’d like to know things, or have things, but really we don’t need or want them. Our imagination is good enough, and we can be happy with who we are and what we have. I mean, that sounds cornball, but it’s true, and the story is really deftly handled, I think.

  2. An interesting conversation between two unlikely people in an even unlikelier place talking about nothing important really, but that’s perfectly fine in this time that makes no sense whatsoever. Good descriptions too that make you feel you’re an invisible party in the shed along with them.

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