Storyglossia Issue 20, June 2007.

Time Traveler

by Mark Spencer


Mama and Papa are alive and young, and even her childhood pets—dogs, cats, rabbits, birds—are alive. Time means nothing. It is 1932 again.

Ethel figures she must be going to die soon because her life is passing before her eyes, not in a flash but in a series of epic dreams.

She's standing on the bank of Love Hollow Creek, mesmerized by the rippling silver water, forgetting for a moment about the discomfort of her unfamiliar and clingy bathing suit. A weeping willow drips down around her. A fat frog leaps into the water. Papa's sinewy arms reach for her. His shirt is off, and his torso is white as chalk, but his forearms are the color of brick, like his face. The muscles and veins bulge with every casual movement and bulge hugely now as he lifts her.

"When you hit the water, beat your arms and legs like the devil's after you."

And she's in the air, then in the water. Sinking, sinking. Flailing madly. Gulping water, swallowing a Jesus Bug. She screams, "Ma!", in her head, but it's Papa who pulls her out, reaches down through the water like God and saves her. He carries her to the creek bank and stands over her with water glistening on his white shoulders, his denim trousers dark and plastered to his thighs, and he frowns down at her as she coughs and cries.

Mama, who was down the creek a ways with Ellie, comes hustling over the mud and rocks best she can, a short woman with tree-stump legs and arms like clubs. "What happened? What happened, Carl?" Ellie stumbles and falls in the mud, and Mama sweeps her up without stopping.

"I was teaching her to swim, Eve," Papa says flatly.

Mama bends to Ethel, slaps her narrow back to help her clear her lungs. "She's near drowned, poor thing."

"Cry baby is all she is."

"Shut up, Carl. I'll throw you in myself."

"Fine with me. Hot day. I can swim. I ain't no crybaby." Papa glares at Ethel.

"Let me get hold of you and you'll be a crybaby."

Papa smiles, seems nice again. "That a promise or a threat, woman?"

Ellie gently takes hold of a tangle of Ethel's wet hair and just holds it, is careful not to pull it.

From somewhere outside this reality recaptured in sleep, Ethel's chest aches, tears well up, to be touched again by little Ellie—"Poor homely little buck-toothed, chinless Ellie," everyone whispered—who grew up and married a soldier, then a police man, then a cowboy, then a blackjack dealer, and who has moved farther and farther west—Louisville, then St. Louis, then Amarillo, then Las Vegas. Now Ellie lives in Oregon, with six dogs and a little backyard turned into a dog cemetery. Ethel has never seen it, but Ellie has sent pictures. "Men cheat but dogs only die," Ellie has said on the phone long distance. "I have come to prefer burials to divorces."

Ethel wants to return to her dream now, to 1932 to tell Ellie never to marry, never to move off, that no good will come of any of it. "I know the future," she could tell her little sister. "I have been there, and I'm back to tell you that getting married is not the way to have love. Or at least not the way to keep it. It fades in the drudgery of the field and the barn and the kitchen, fades in the light of black-and-white TV shows. . . . Stay with me. I love you, Ellie. I love you, sister, the way no man ever will. . . . A man, sister, is . . . of . . . limited . . . use."

She drifts back and forth between dream and the world, between past and present, and somewhere in there, she thinks somebody is sick, maybe herself—too many hotdogs at the county fair on a hot August day. She hears feverish moans, muffled as they come from . . . the fog of a dream or memory . . . through the wall, through the rattling winter window on the wind of some lost spring.

Then Ethel can't help remembering who she used to be, guilt and longing mingled like gasoline and rain water. Decades ago she felt the fever and the weakness and the power. Many girls, prissy girls in knee socks, said terrible things about her. She wore tight skirts and stuffed her bra with tissues. A cute girl. A wild girl, they thought, but not really. Bud was the only one she let . . . . The other kids called her "Ethel High Octane." "Ethel burns," they said. All through school there were two Ethels. Her, Ethel Willy, and a dull, plain girl, Ethel White. They sat side by side in classes because they were assigned seats alphabetically. "Ethel Regular," the kids said straight faced. Then—their faces blooming into silly grins—they chorused, "Ethel High Octane!"

Ethel, a girl-woman, awakes when the breeze carries to her through her open window the sound of a man's involuntary moan, and she gets out of bed and kneels on the wood floor in front of the window to peer out at nothing in the moonlight except the apple trees and the one dogwood and the silhouettes of the hills beyond. This is true spring, not some frozen March of the future. The moon a perfect circle. The smell of apples. Pa's snores come through the wall. Then Mama's snores, even louder than Pa's.

Then she hears Ellie's sigh and again the moan of the soldier boy who told Pa he'd rather kill Japs than Germans but guesses it's not up to him. Tall and lean, like Bud. Wavy dark-blond hair, a smile like Clark Gable's. Ellie is lucky—lucky and in love.

Hidden in the shadows of the apple grove Ellie is learning the secrets that Ethel only recently learned herself in Bud's truck with the wooden side rails, the wooden gear-shift knob. The wood floor makes her knees ache. Suddenly, a chill blows through the open window, the spring smells mingle with that of . . . an old furnace . . . .

This is a world that was and now is again, a world of objects and smells and tastes and sounds and touches—oh, now she wakes with the tingling she used to wake with lying next to Bud sixty years ago.

Ethel feels Bud, his rough beard on her cheek, his calloused hands, his rigid flesh.

She awakes breathless, and as the present world materializes around her and the floating sensation of her dream dissipates and her sagging flesh pulls her into the mattress and makes it difficult to sit up, she tastes cotton and copper and can't fight the urge to spit.

So she does. A glob of herself plops to the floor, full of DNA that scientists can use to recreate her in a thousand years—Bud used to watch those crime shows. She falls back into the mattress, telling herself she will have to clean up her nastiness later, hopes scientists of the future will let her rest in peace.

Copyright©2007 Mark Spencer