by Dan Hiestand
“If you wanna make God laugh, tell’em what you’re doing tomorrow.”
Let me start off by just getting it out there. I can move into the past; easily, in fact, and my method is touching a person’s hand while looking into their eyes. That’s right, I need to go into their past. Can’t just do it by clicking my heels together and I don’t own a DeLorean tricked out by Christopher Lloyd. I’m also aware of how this sounds: Like the premise of a really crappy, made-for-TV movie (one that I would watch, by the way), but none of that matters.
At least it shouldn’t by the time you finish reading this.
How I’m able to do what I do was passed on to me, but to go into it any further would be a waste of time, which even someone like me must take into account. And there are rules, like anything else. Limitations. I’m prevented from altering world events, for one. Not allowed to change a timeline that would result in a person’s death, for another. But the most important one, at least for our purposes, is that I have one shot to accomplish my aims. One. After I travel into someone’s past, I can never do it again. Like a door that ceases to exist after opening.
Oh, and where in a person’s past I go is completely unpredictable. Don’t know why. Maybe it has to do with the fabric of the universe. Maybe it has to do with age. I’ve found the older the person I travel through, the further back I tend to go. I have this theory that it’s because the more years someone has, the more they long for the past. Point is, I could wind up watching what someone did five minutes ago or be present at the moment of birth.
It’s that random.
I know how close you are to your daughter. I know you’ve raised her and your son alone, since your wife’s death in 1986, and I know about the annual fishing trips to Black Lake, New York you’ve been taking her on since she was barely able to walk. She really likes them, too, which is amazing, as she’s also one of the girliest little things I’ve ever met. At a glance, you’d expect her favorite thing to be strolling through a mall, half a dozen bags in each hand, fresh from charging another pair of shoes to your credit card.
But it isn’t.
I mean, there is that side of her, but she’s so much more than that. She’s deep and sweet and caring. She’ll stop in the middle of telling you the best way to gut a Northern Pike to scream at the sight of a spider scurrying across the floor. Those are the contradictions that make her so great. That explain why I was falling in love with her.
We met at Citi Field, during a New York Mets game, bottom of the second inning, July 13, 2010. She was standing in front of me in line at one of the concession stands, buying a soft pretzel and one of those ridiculously overpriced plastic cups with the season schedule on the back.
When she turned around, her hand holding the change hit my shoulder. She dropped the coins at my feet. Without thinking, I kneeled down to pick them up for her. When I looked up we were face to face. Her with the pretzel and overpriced cup, me with her seventy-five cents.
The recollection is sort of mechanical, I know, but I’ve played it back so many times it’s too specific to tell any other way. I remember sucking in a breath when our eyes met, like falling in freezing water. She was that beautiful, and for a time that felt longer than it could have been, we were isolated; crouched and staring at each other in a forest of shoes and legs. I locked up completely and like to think she did too. And then the moment was over.
Interrupted when one of the trees began to talk.
“Hey asshole, how ‘bout takin’ the girl outta line? Work up that courage where it ain’t holdin’ up the show.”
When I stood and faced him, he winked. A guy with a backwards hat, probably thirty something both in age and pounds overweight. He was one of those cool guys, ya know? Practitioner of the art at calling someone an asshole and making it sound like a compliment. Many of the people around us were laughing a kind of sympathetic chuckle. Even Mr. Backwards Hat was in on it.
That’s what the wink was for.
Good luck, asshole.
She put the pretzel in her mouth, reached up to my sleeve and led me by the arm to one of those high tables you don’t sit but stand at. Later I would remember it was the first time I had ever seen one unoccupied in that section of the ballpark.
“Yeah, honey, let me get two Bud Lights and a …” I heard cool overweight guy ordering before we were too far away. A second later and our eyes met for the second time, across a circular plain of linoleum, a ketchup-stained napkin and half-finished beer looking on.
“Hey,” she said first.
“Hi,” I said back, handling that sapphire gaze a bit better now.
“So you try’in to rob me?”
I flinched when I realized I still had her change. She held out her hand and I dropped the coins into it, watching as she slid them into the back pocket of her jean shorts. Normally, I would wonder why they bothered putting pockets in clothes like that. I mean it’s like every hot girl in summer needs the Jaws of Life just to retrieve their ATM card. In that moment, however, as I watched her slide her fingers back out, I thought them a very good idea, and when she didn’t immediately leave, I knew she was at least a little interested.
We commenced with the code.
“So, who you here with?” – Boyfriend?
“Just friends. You?” – Nope. Single. You?
“Same.” – Same.
We talked long enough about the Mets for me to realize she was a true fan. Not just one of those girls who liked the team’s colors or something - not like it mattered. Talked about the impending return of Carlos Beltran, agreeing on how huge that would be. Given the circumstances, it was about the equivalent of discussing the weather. She was waiting for me to ask for her number. I’d known that for nearly ten minutes, but was putting it off. Mr. Backwards Hat would have been disappointed:
Different spot, still holding up the show.
And so I finally did it.
“So… I kinda gotta get back to the people I came with,” I lied, gesturing back behind me like an idiot. “But can I get your number?”
Hate the awkwardness of that question.
Loved the result.
She raised her eyebrows a little, put the plastic cup on the table and lowered a strap around her forearm. She might as well have sighed the word finally now that I think about it. I hadn’t noticed the backpack until that moment; navy blue with the British flag on the back, and she unzipped it, taking out her ticket stub and a pen.
When she started scribbling down her number, I saw a copper band on her finger. A mood ring, and just for the hell of it, I planned to look up brown when I got home. Never did, though. Then I saw the actual numbers she was writing, eyes widening at the 856.
“South Jersey?” I asked, and my surprise probably made it the first thing I said in my normal voice. Usually, in moments like this, it’s slightly deeper as I try to appear calm and in control.
“Oh. Yeah,” she said, writing the last digit and looking up at me. She held out the ticket stub, smiled, and I almost did that sucking in breath thing again. “Mount Laurel.”
I reached over the table and took it from her, then flipped it over, glancing at the back as if there might be something of importance there.
Again. Like an idiot.
“That’s so crazy,” I said, clearing my throat and sliding her number into my pocket. “I’m in Mount Holly. We live like ten minutes apart.”
“Awesome.” She sounded sincere. I mean it really was a coincidence. That is, I would have thought so if I believed in them.
United Kingdom backpack back in place, she picked up the plastic cup and took a couple steps back.
“Okay, well maybe I’ll talk to ya later, then,” she said, knowing damn well there’d be no maybe about it.
“Yeah, cool.” My voice had gone deeper again. But then, astounding even myself, I blurted: “Hey, I really like your shirt, by the way.”
She glanced down at it, between the plastic cup of Pepsi and the giant pretzel, concentrating on the orange Mets script above David Wright’s number 5. Then her eyes were back on me, another smile curving her lips.
“Um. Thanks?” Whether her confused tone was genuine or meant just to torture me was irrelevant. The effect was the same. Before spinning away, she laughed out the words “See ya,” but after only a step or two she twirled back in my direction. “Hey, what’s your name?”
“John,” I told her.
“Ah, okay,” she said as if checking it off a guest list. “I’m Katie.”
I nodded, meaning to wave but hesitating after I was already committed. The result was something like a jerky half-salute.
A kind of well alright then lil’ lady, best be on your way type deal.
Katie DeWitt I would find out when I called, and taking out the ticket stub, I watched her disappear in the crowd. For some reason, tucking it nonchalantly into my pocket seemed like the best thing in front of her, but now I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t lose it. Transferring it into my wallet, that’s where it stayed until this moment, which is the reason I know the exact date of that game beyond all doubt.
So thank God, or Fate, or whatever it is you believe in for that.
About a month later and we were watching another Mets game; this one on my TV, in my apartment, all trace of awkwardness gone. We were sitting on my couch and her hair was pulled back in a short ponytail. Her legs were over my lap and she was wiggling her toes, asking me if I liked the color of her nail polish: Bubblegum pink.
Of course I did.
She’s one of those people who can do anything, and if she’s the one doing it, it’s immediately beautiful too.
We were passing the stage where you count your dates.
When movies and dinners gradually give way to hanging out and just enjoying each other’s company. It was a time of late night conversations that ran until morning. During those nights, I learned about Black Lake and the first guy she kissed. I told her things like when I was a little kid it bummed me out that the bad guy in The Karate Kid was named Johnny (a confession at which she laughed, hysterically, for almost five minutes). We liked each other a lot, the kind of like that is the foundation for any special relationship, and both of us knew it.
The complex I live in is called Silverwood Apartments, you might have heard of it since you’re only one town over. Pretty ordinary, and like all Jersey apartments, the rent is much higher than it should be. And if you’re wondering why a guy who has the ability to travel into the past isn’t living in a mansion instead, I’ll tell you. If you’re not, I’ll tell you anyway.
First, it’s not as easy as it sounds.
Without being able to control how far I go back, it’s difficult to play the lottery or place bets relevant to the day I left, and it’s never worked out the few times I’ve tried. Second, I’ve grown wary of abusing this. That is to say, I’m all about a larger force at work these days.
I mean ... have the ability to travel through time.
Katie’s tall glass of iced tea was on my IKEA end table, sweating a ring at its base. Even if I cared about coasters, which I don’t, they would have been the farthest thing from my mind. I was beginning to realize that when we were together, I didn’t care about anything else. I mean, yeah, the provocative shorts and that adorable top tied over her perfectly tanned shoulders didn’t hurt, but it was more than that. Could have been because we were in that new love stage. Could have been because she was so special.
Probably, it was both.
Outside, one of my neighbors, a guy named Sylvester Newhouse, was yelling at his indoor cat that had slipped out the front door. He liked to be referred to as Sly – I don’t actually know if it’s because of Sylvester Stallone, but I do know he would have been a teenager when the guy was cranking out one cheesy action movie after another in the 80s. So it’s probably a pretty safe bet.
Through the screen of my sliding glass door floated:
“Get back in the freakin’ house, Muffins! Muffins, let’s go!
And on it went.
Katie cocked her head up ever so slightly, as if Newhouse chastising Muffins’ thirst for adventure were the voice of a spirit answering a séance.
“His cat’s name is ... Muffins?” she asked, through that adorable laugh of hers.
“Yeah. His wife named it, then left him a couple years ago.”
She moved into a sitting position and closed the gap between us.
“Well that’s sort of insult to injury, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, I guess,” I remember saying, but the words felt like they were spoken by someone else.
“Muffins! In. The Freakin’. House!
“He says freakin’ a lot,” she whispered, her mouth against mine, and she seemed to enjoy that I wasn’t giving in, playing the game along with her; a game that ended with a cut-off giggle when our lips met.
We had kissed before that night, but this one was different.
What you might refer to as the yeah, we’re definitely a couple now kiss. My arms rose to slip around her but before they took hold she slid off the couch and stood up.
“Gotta go,” she said, looking strangely amused, and I realized then that the couple kiss was meant to linger until the next day.
We talked a little more; I tried to convince her to stay, wishing we could …
… Um. Watch the rest of the game.
But she had an early test in the morning for what she called this stupid Saturday class and she didn’t wanna be tired on the long drive to Black Lake with you. She never said anything, but I figured that drive is when you two catch up.
Otherwise, why would it matter if she were tired then?
A few minutes later I was standing on my shoebox-sized balcony, looking down at her in the parking lot. Her black Pontiac Sunfire was in the space right in front of my door, and the marker lights flicked and chirped as she hit the button on her keys to unlock it.
Across the way, Sly was still locked in tense negotiations with Muffins, a menacing feline meowing with a foreign accent; a shiny silver gun in its paw held to the head of some imaginary, well-endowed hottie. He paused in the struggle long enough to throw me a wave, which I answered with a nod. Then I was looking back down to Katie.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” she asked me, fiddling with her keys.
“Hanging out with you,” I said. “Before you go all wilderness woman.”
She narrowed her eyes in the orange streetlight.
I had been sort of annoyed that after the next afternoon, I wouldn’t get to see her again for a week, but secretly, I thought her trips with you were cute. I hope she knew I was only kidding around when I made fun of it.
The last thing she did was stick out her tongue and say, “Call me, jerk,” flashing that beautiful smile. Then came the screaming tires. I saw her look away from my balcony to the end of the parking lot, where it opens to Freemont Ave., but for some reason my eyes didn’t follow. I never saw the truck swerving toward her. Instead, my attention had gone to Muffins’ panic-stricken dart back inside. Sylvester watched the events I never saw with transfixed horror, holding out an arm but incapable of speech. The impact, I heard clearly, and then the world went to slow motion around me. They say that happens to people who are in shock sometimes, but I was lucid, and it wasn’t all in my mind. It was as if the fabric of time itself was reacting to my state of mind, and that part had never happened before.
Sylvester was running across the parking lot, and then finally, I saw Katie. She was pinned between the front of her car and the one beside her, as if caught by a pair of steel and fiberglass chopsticks. Had she only run the other way she would have been fine. But it would have required her to move toward the parking lot instead of away, and instinct, as it so often does, had betrayed her.
I honestly couldn’t tell you whether I jumped off my balcony or ran back into my apartment for the stairs. All I know is I was next to her in a flash, despite the slow motion reality. The steady hum of the streetlights buzzed in my ears, wrapped me in coppery fluorescence, and the world was down to her.
I should have been horrified, but I wasn’t. There was a tingling in my fingertips, and this part was typical. To my left, Newhouse was yelling something but I only saw his mouth moving, no sound. I was drifting into the zone, that place I go when I’m about to do my thing. I registered the look of shock on Sylvester’s face as I calmly walked up to Katie (freakish calm it would have appeared to him), grasping her chin and guiding her vacant eyes to mine. She was staring at everything and nothing all at once, but her soft hand fluttered up when she sensed me there, touching my face like a blind person might confirm the identity of a loved one. My fingers interlocked with hers.
There was a decision to be made.
I could go into the past of the drunk driver (he was already hanging outside the driver’s side door.) But he was older, late sixties by the looks of him, and I didn’t like my chances. There were too many years to go back to, plus the whole older you are the farther I tend to go back thing. There wouldn’t be much I could do if I found myself in a 1950s kitchen, watching this piece of shit sneak a beer from his white trash family’s fridge.
I could go into Sylvester’s past, but because of his age I would be faced with the same problem.
No, it had to be Katie.
Newhouse’s hand was on my shoulder now, probably telling me I shouldn’t be moving her. He had his cell phone trembling at his ear, talking to a 911 operator who was probably telling him the same thing. Then Katie’s loose hand found strength and matched my grip. Her eyes locked on mine, flashing with a wild blue focus. There was tightness in my chest, a familiar sensation of being sucked through a straw made of light.
And when it faded there was screaming.
Jubilant, enthusiastic screaming as a little kid in a red uniform rounded third and raced awkwardly home. I was sitting on a set of metal bleachers, an island of seriousness in a sea of parental cheer, but I wasn’t the only one. Katie was there too, similarly unaffected by the on-field heroics. She was eating Fun Dip and we were back where this all began.
In the Forest of Shoes and Legs.
The ruckus was fading, the kid was handling high fives with a giant grin on his face, and the enthusiastic spectators were once again taking their seats. But Katie’s eyes never left me. In the back of my mind, I was wondering if I had just appeared there out of thin air, if that’s how it worked. In the front of it I saw that while undeniably beautiful, she was more girl than the young woman I’d been falling for; self-conscious, not yet aware her presence could cut through men like a chainsaw.
When she spoke, the sound of her voice brought me back to the present.
She was looking at my faded blue Mets shirt.
“Nice,” she said, brushing her hair behind her ear. “Ya hear we got Piazza?”
Yes. I had heard that. In 1998 when it happened. Which would make the Katie DeWitt I was talking to … 16 years old. Mike Piazza was traded to the Mets in May of that year.
Her birthday, I knew, was in late September.
“Yeah, I did. Good stuff.”
I noticed a man leaning against a chain link fence near the concession stand. Even from this distance I felt the fire there, the venomous stare promising violence in the gathering cool.
Katie followed my line of sight.
“That’s my dad,” she said in that oblivious way girls do.
Yeah, no shit, I almost replied.
Amazing, that epic disconnect between the sexes in regard to fathers. It’s kind of like being hunted by a starving grizzly while a pretty girl next to you swears it’s just a teddy bear.
“My little brother’s the second baseman,” this younger Katie was saying, motioning with the sugar stick.
It was perfect, seeing you there. Uncomfortable, realizing what I must have looked like in your eyes, but perfect, and I’m sure it was with some relief that you watched me stand up, smile at your daughter and start away. But then I turned back, feeling the first twinge of near-crippling sadness. That tightness in my chest was returning, but for different reasons.
It was time to say goodbye.
“You’re really pretty,” I told her, and this drew a few reproachful expressions and mumbled disapproval from the bleacher brigade. I knew the impact it would have coming from an older guy she thought was cute, although mainly, I think, I said it because I’d never done so before. Now this was my only chance.
She raised her eyebrows, but said nothing, and as the game went on before us I wished the bad television script that was my life would let me forget. That the main character would forget everything after changing the timeline. But no, I would remember this.
I would miss her for the rest of my life.
“Thank you,” she said after a long pause, glancing down.
I didn’t wait for her to look up again, so when she did it would have seemed like I vanished.
At least, that’s what I like to think.
I needed to go somewhere and write this, and it had to go to you, for it’s not the kind of thing you tell a sixteen-year-old girl. Hell, it’s not the kind of thing you tell anyone. It has to be reviewed. Be tangible. Because strange noises at midnight lose their effect in the bright light of day, and in the years to come that daylight will burn what I swear to you is the truth. Without this letter, in all its specific detail, you would dismiss this. Shield yourself with the same instincts that betrayed your daughter.
And then we would meet again.
At her funeral.
The Mount Laurel Public Library, less than a hundred yards away, was exactly the place I needed. Convenient? No, not really. More inevitable than anything else. Like how I met Katie at a Mets game, we were watching baseball the night she was hurt, and she was at another game when I entered her past. Your son playing in the only Little League to use the fields behind the library is just another piece to the puzzle.
See, Black Lake, the most sacred place on earth to you and your daughter, is in Saint Lawrence County, New York. In Latin, Lawrence means: Laurelled (what’s the name of your town again?), and he’s the patron of libraries and librarians. And if you wanna get really crazy, even Katie’s backpack fits into the mix. The British flag is the Cross of Saint Andrew counterchanged with the Cross of St. Patrick over that of St. George. St. George is the patron saint of England, so no great mystery there. But Saint Andrew is the patron of fishermen. Saint Patrick of New York.
This time, the cosmic nuance lay hidden in Christian martyrs.
Next time maybe ice cream flavors, who knows?
Used to fascinate me, but now it’s just something I observe without trying. It was also the farthest thing from my mind as I approached the library. When I passed through the entrance I had plenty of time.
Your son’s game was in the bottom of the second.
By double-clicking the clock on the bottom right corner of the desktop, the library computer displayed the exact date of May 23. I typed out this letter and paid thirty-five cents for printing, handing it to some punk-ass teenager behind the reception desk. Kid was the extreme opposite of what you would imagine a librarian looking like. Probably there for community service, the only patron he had a shot at was if there was one for not ironing clothes.
My plan is to put this letter in your hands, the ticket stub too, and so if you're reading it ask yourself if ignoring these words is worth the risk. Never mention this to Katie. I can never see her again, that’s important.
Time on the mind is the tide on a beach.
Remember the sounds of midnight.
May 23, 1998/August 14, 2010
Getting back to the present is not as dramatic as one might think. There are no magic words to say, no secret portals or cleverly hidden wormholes. A thought, a kaleidoscopic whirl and I’m standing where I was when I left.
It’s the easiest part of the whole thing.
Back in the parking lot, I had arrived in a mystical fog that turned out to be steam. It rose from beneath the crumpled up hood of a rusted out burgundy pickup, wafting around like a ghost in front of the drunk hanging out of the side. It hadn’t hit a Pontiac Sunfire, though, but a late model Taurus instead. Newhouse was still on his phone, only now looking in my direction. Again I wondered vaguely if I had appeared from thin air. His expression suggested not.
Sylvester had been doing a little time travel of his own, another trip back to the ‘80s, tellin’ this DUI bastard what was what.
“Oh yeah, that’s right, buddy. I’m on the phone with the freakin’ police!” He glanced at me again, lowering the cell to his shoulder. “Hey, you believe this guy? Lucky he didn’t kill nobody.”
I nodded slowly, tired as hell, and said: “Yeah.”
Then a soft jingle stole his attention and he turned, face reddening in the skewed Chevy headlights.
“Muffins, you son of a bitch!”
And with that he was in fast pursuit, flip-flops slapping the pavement as a cop turned off Freemont Ave.
I walked to my door.
Climbing the stairs, I was thinking about the butterfly effect.
How did it go again?
A butterfly flapping its wings in China could cause hurricanes in Florida?
Something like that.
Well, if it’s true, then I’ve caused my share of storms, but there’s a saying that I think makes more sense:
If you wanna make God laugh, tell’em what you’re doing tomorrow. I don’t think he, she or it would laugh at me, though. I think God knows I’m in on the joke.
Ignoring the thoughts of Katie, and the kiss meant to linger a day that turned into forever, I slid closed my sliding glass door and flicked on the A/C. Mr. DeWitt had come through and I found myself staring at the spot on the couch where his daughter had now never been. Then I glanced to the TV and sighed. Mets were on. Plenty of game left. Men on first and third.
Bottom of the second.