If I leaned far enough back on the railing of my neighbor’s front porch, I could just catch a glimpse of the Tower of the Americas and a couple of the tall buildings of the San Antonio skyline. The impromptu get-together I had been invited to was just Dina and Bradley, who owned the house, and Jerry and Becky from across the street. You might think I’d have something in common with these people, we were all pretty much the same age; however, both these couples had children, they owned their homes, and, well, they had professions, and the list could go on. So as the conversation drifted from lending rates, school-board elections, and retirement plans, I enjoyed the gin and tonics which were already mixed in a pitcher, and the vanilla ice-cream which Dina had made earlier that afternoon in her grandmother’s old crank-handled device.
“We’re so glad she bought the house on the corner,” Dina said placing her hand on her husband’s knee. She was speaking of the famous woman who lived at the end of our block, the sole undisputed celebrity on the street — undisputed as well by the MacArthur Foundation who conferred upon her one of their “genius awards” for her literary successes.
Jerry speculated it was for investment purposes, but his wife Becky shook her head.
“The girl who moved into the house last week is writing her biography,” she said, meaning the celebrity genius.
Bradley snorted. “Hell if I’d want my biographer living across the street from me,” he said, draining his glass.
“You just cross that bridge when you get to it, dear,” Dina replied drily.
“At least that freak’s gone for good,” Jerry said. He fiddled with his long grey ponytail.
“You never met him,” Becky admonished. “You can’t call him a freak.”
“He’d been locked up in that house twenty years, maybe more,” Dina said. “Margaret remembers the family — she told me the guy’s mom was a sweet woman. And the son was okay. A bit squirrely — and that would be Margaret’s choice of words — but once his mom died, he never left the house again.”
“Yeah,” Jerry said, running his finger across the bottom of his bowl. He licked off the last of the ice cream. “Until the guys in the white suits came to drag him away.”
“I heard it was the constable’s office,” Bradley added. “Defaulting on property taxes.”
“Whatever,” Jerry said. “But I’m pretty sure mental health workers were involved”
“And a mystery it will remain,” Becky said.
“His name was Blake,” I said. “I met him about a year ago.”
They all stared at me.
Finally Jerry asked, “What, did you invite yourself over for tea?”
“No. It was coffee.” I looked down at the empty glass in my hand. Bradley got up and filled it. “And he invited me.”
When I found the note card in my mailbox, it took me a while to recognize it for what it was. A personal communication. Handwritten address, first class stamp. For so many years now mailboxes seem to harbor little more than second class junk mail and bills. What had me most curious was that the return address was for a house on my block.
The note was floridly written with an unnecessary amount of semicolons. The writer, Blake being his name, mentioned “an excellent academic paper of yours I have recently read,” and he suggested a day and time I might come for a visit and talk about my studies. “I’d drop by and introduce myself in person, but I must confess I am somewhat housebound, and as such unable to make it even the short distance to your home.”
Becky cleared her throat. I looked up.
“Academic paper?” she asked.
I explained that a decade back I had a piece published in a multidisciplinary annual journal, On Time, which was, as the title indicated, all about the concept of time. I’d done an essay about time in modernist literature. The obvious stuff, Proust and Woolf. Very dry and something I don’t make a point to broadcast. But it struck a chord with Blake. Somehow he had managed to track me down. And, thrilled that I was just down the street, he wanted to have a chat, over coffee, about his favorite topic. Time.
I never gave much thought to the house on the corner. The lawn was kept neat, with little flower beds of marigolds circling two stunted magnolia trees. The sides of the house were thickly covered by climbing ivy. Blake answered the door. I took his hand which was cool and dry. We shook. He closed the door behind me.
Blake was in his forties, a bit older than myself. He had that brittle look of an aging punk rocker who refused to let go of his anti-establishment rebelliousness: spiky tousled hair thickened by black dye, straight-legged black jeans, black t-shirt under an unbuttoned and untucked white dress shirt worn like a jacket, and I’m pretty sure he wore just a bit of eye liner which made his pale, bloodless skin just that more cadaverous.
The living room had been appointed like a Victorian parlor. Persian rug, William Morris wallpaper, wingback chairs — in fact the only discernable artifact of modernity was the air conditioning window unit blasting away, which was quite welcome on a summer day in Texas. Blake motioned me to sit in a maroon chair. He walked through a dinning room and then through a swinging door into the kitchen. Seconds later he returned carrying a tray with two mugs of coffee and two plates of scones already buttered.
He leaned back in his chair and placed his slippered feet atop the coffee table. He blew across the surface of his coffee.
We chatted about books. Literature at first. And then things moved toward science. I was able to hold my own on digressions concerning the work of Marconi, Einstein, and Heisenberg. But Blake became quite excited when he brought up the names of two Russian physicists who wrote a paper about how electromagnetic oscillations can impacted the movement of time.
“If it was winter,” Blake continued, after taking a moment to catch his breath, ” you might be able to see under all those vines outside. This house is wrapped in 16-gauge copper wire. Seven hundred and forty-three loops of wire. Sure, they have to meander around the doors and the windows, but it’s all out there. The ivy really seems to love it. Damned if I know why. There is a constant low voltage, fed by a slow spinning electromagnet inside an old water heater in the backyard. A 4.3 cycle AC generator. This is all, of course, privileged information.”
I gave him an indulgent smile and then pantomimed zipping my lips.
“What we have here,” Blake tossed up his hand, indicating his home, “it a time machine. Not like HG Wells. I’m not able to move back and forth. But the special wiring here is shielding me from time. Time is a substance. A thing. A force which can be hampered by a specific electromagnetic field. The wires girding this house.”
Blake looked at an old ’80s style digital watch on his wrist — it had the red LED readout. He laughed.
“I’m a prisoner of my own experiments. Time, it’s a bitch.”
I’d finished my last bite of scone and was patting at my lips with a paper napkin. I was tempted to surreptitiously check my own watch, but all I had to mark time was my cell phone. It was in my pocket.
“I see. Very clever. Very, um, shrewd.”
“It might surprise you to learn, my friend,” Blake said with a smug grin, “that I’m 45 years old. That’s right, I was born in 1962!”
Well, I had no trouble believing that.
“I’m going to find my passport so you will know I’m being truthful. The world will really sit up when after this experiment ends in 75 more years I emerge looking just as I do now — a youthful 20 years old!”
Blake put down his mug, brushed the crumbs from his shirt, and leaped up. I watched him disappear into the back of the house.
I was trying to figure out the best plan of escape, when I heard a loud knock at the front door. I waited, thinking Blake might have heard over the air conditioning. But, no. The knocking repeated. I got up and opened the door.
The delivery man seemed startled to see me. I explained that Blake was busy and took the two bags of groceries and placed them on the floor just inside the door.
“I believe that would be for me,” the man said quietly, indicating an envelope on a low table beside me. His payment I assumed and handed it over.
As I stood there watching the delivery man return to his van and drive off, my gaze drifted down and I noticed a wire running along the threshold of the front door. Until then I had never heard of 16-gage copper wire, let alone knowingly seen any. It was skinnier than I’d have assumed, and the bit I saw had collected a dull green patina with age. I leaned down and ran my finger underneath it and am pretty sure I felt a tingly vibration.
I crossed over onto the porch and the world where time’s arrow was unshielded and thus allowed to continue with its slow ravages. As softly as possible, I shut the door behind me and walked home. I never received another letter from Blake.
Jerry looked down into his glass when I finished my story and said that “maybe if you’d waited around you’d have seen that crazy bastard return wearing a silver jumpsuit and waving a plastic laser gun.”
The others laughed. Bradley suggested that we sneak over to the house and give those wires a feel, but then someone brought up the subject of homeowners’ insurance, and I soon said my goodnights.
About two months later I heard that the celebrity author’s biographer fell into a catatonic state from which she couldn’t be roused. Her parents had to come down from Rhode Island and collected her. There was some attempt to place the blame on black mold or perhaps some exotic reaction to a spider bite. But I suspect the real culprit was a 4.3 cycle AC generator hidden in plain sight in the backyard.