A wall across time

You can’t sit by the river of time, my father used to say. He always said this casually, as though he was merely pointing out that it could not be done, whenever he found me staring into space instead of doing my homework or something else he considered useful. When I didn’t react, he got more animated.

“Things won’t just fall into your lap from the sky,” he’d say in exasperation, pointing at the sky. To impress on me what he meant, he’d add, as a kind of visual emphasis, “like wet sacks of shit.”

What these things were that would not befall me like wet sacks of shit was never specified. My father made no sense when he was exasperated, and he was exasperated often. I stared into space a lot, sitting by the river of time, as he put it.

“When are you planning to wake up?” he interrupted my reverie one Saturday morning when we were building a terrace wall at our beach house.

He’d insisted that I help him, but I didn’t feel like it and was staring into space.

“You know,” he said as he leaned on his spade, “rounded to the nearest decade?”

“I’m awake,” I mumbled.

He shook his head, wiped his brow with the back of his gardening glove and adjusted his glasses.

“You wouldn’t look awake if I put a thousand Volts through you,” he remarked.

“I’m awake when I do my own things,” I retorted.

“What did that teacher say?” my father asked. “The one who looks like a Hampshire pig?”

“Killian?”

“That’s the one.”

I swallowed. Mr Killian was a near-spherical psycho who had taken a particular dislike in me.

“He said all I had to do was keel over and stink.”

My father wiped his brow again and smiled to himself.

“Wouldn’t you like to look at this wall one day,” he asked, changing the topic, “and know that you helped your father build it?”

“I guess,” I said and looked at the wall. “But you make me hold things and it’s boring.”

“I make you hold things,” my father replied, “so you won’t run away.”

He had a point. I once drifted off and left him crawling around inside the roof where he tapped various metal pipes for hours, hoping to hear me call out from the scullery that he’d found the one containing its electric wiring.

While it was natural for my father to think me lazy, it was rather that I wanted to be someone else, elsewhere, elsewhen. I imagined myself as a minor messiah, speaking in parables and understanding animals. I daydreamed of being picked up by passing aliens. Most of all, I wished to travel back in time to hurt Mr Killian when he was a boy. As I dreamed of all this, I talked to myself and had vigorous disagreements with invisible people. I never knew what I was actually supposed to be doing. Maybe I was a little lazy too. Nonetheless, my father’s warning against inaction had the opposite effect to what he’d intended. It sounded to me as though I could indeed sit by the river of time but that it was forbidden to do so. This added an extra dimension of pleasure to staring into space and doing nothing—it wasn’t merely wasteful; it was illegal.

“Why do you look so fucking smug?” my father once asked after he’d delivered what felt like an hour-long speech about the nature of fulfillment and how little of it I would attain if I continued down the road to indolence. “Work is a form of love,” he went on. “Things won’t just fall into your lap from the sky—”

“Yeah, I know,” I dismissed him, “like wet sacks of shit.”


But, of course, he was right. All I’d seen of the river of time were the waterfalls and rapids that are childhood and puberty. I didn’t yet know how helplessly adrift I actually was, dragged along in the stream, one second every second, one day per day. Then, as the years went by, the river left the mountains and things slowed down. The days became more alike. People came and went. I realised that work had better be a form of love, like my father had said, because I seemed to be doing little else. My investment in daydreaming also paid off. Things began to fall into my lap like wet sacks of shit. At last I understood what my father had meant all those years before—the sort of things that fell into your lap were not the sort of things you really wanted. They were OK, as things went, but they were not the greatness you had dreamt of.


Now, years later still, the river is nearing the sea. My father is long gone and his grandson stands before me, the very embodiment of absence. JD is ten. He looks like my father but he acts like me. We’re at the beach house where my father built a terrace wall one Saturday morning so many years ago. JD and I have come outside so that I can interrogate him.

“What the hell were you thinking?” I ask.

JD stares into the distance and tries to stand on one foot.

“Look at me when I’m talking to you,” I say in an effort to control myself.

He looks at me and furrows his brow to concentrate.

“And?” I ask.

“What?”

“What were you thinking!?”

“It was a light saber,” he says and does a Darth Vader sound.

“It was a neon tube,” I correct him with strangled restraint. “You know, the sort that breaks.”

“Well,” he mumbles and looks past me again, “it felt like a light saber.”

“You didn’t think,” I say, “that’s what. When are you planning to start?”

“Start what?”

“Thinking, dammit!”

“I think!” JD shouts. “I think about all the things I’m going to put in my movie.”

Ever since he was six he has claimed to be the world’s best director, frustrated in his calling by his nagging family and the silly requirements of school.

“Your movie won’t get made if you don’t start thinking about other things too.”

He looks past me and it’s clear that he’s elsewhere already. With a pang I see myself, as my father must have, standing in the same spot JD now does.

“Can I go?” JD asks and scratches his knee.


As he walks back to the house, I look again at the wall. It has stood here for most of my life, day in and day out, while a giant fig tree has grown to overshadow it. I’d give anything now to have my childhood wish come true and travel back in time, not to hurt Mr Killian, but to help my father one Saturday when I’m fourteen and wanted to be elsewhere. When we take a break from our work, I’ll walk back to the house, like my son now does, and have a cool drink on the patio while my father smokes a cigarette. My mother will come to argue with my father about her plan for the wall, but I’ll carry on working without him. At sunset we’ll go outside to look at our wall together. My mother will be there and she’ll tell us how this is still wrong, and that, and my father will say that I mustn’t mind her and that he’s glad we did this today.


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Special Relativity

My father believed in moral absolutes, despite everything he knew about the workings of the universe. He kept his promises and he told the truth. It was the least he could do in a world of chaos. My mother couldn’t care less about the workings of the universe. She felt no need to strain against its chaos. Instead, she added to it. Unlike my father, she made promises she had no intention of keeping. She once promised to let him teach her to play chess if he’d help her shop for a sofa. When it came time to learn chess, she lay on the sofa and laughed and laughed. My father was perplexed. Had he not shopped for a sofa? What was the problem?

The truth was equally pliable. If it interfered with a story my mother wished to tell, she changed it on the spot. In her stories, my father often did things he hadn’t done at all. He could never understand how she managed to do this. Was it she who missed the point, or was it he?


Because the truths of physics and mathematics were impossible to change, my mother rejected them. As far as she was concerned, there was no reason why they had to be that way. She was pretty sure that humans didn’t know everything they thought they did about the world, and that mathematics was just a cryptic ruse to cover it up. Because my father loved these things, my mother could rile him about them. Once, when she complained about gravity, he took the bait.

“What do you mean,” he growled, “what good is gravity?”

“It does me no good,” my mother dismissed him. “It limits my freedom.”

My father swallowed with difficulty as he calmed himself and followed her around the room.

“Tell me,” he asked, “what do you think the tango would look like in outer space, free of gravity?”

“I don’t care about the tango,” my mother replied.

“What do you care about?”

“My breasts,” she said after some thought. “I’d like them to be weightless.”

“Weightless?”

“Yes,” she said. “Free.”

“Then you’d better undock them from the mother ship,” my father said.

My mother lit a cigarette and waved it about in a grand gesture.

“You give up far too easily,” she said. “They must stay docked. But they must point where I’m pointing.”

My father tried to ignore this.

“It’s limits that give you freedom,” he said.

But my mother was no longer listening.


Even though it never worked, my father continued to believe that he could one day instill a respect for the laws of nature in my mother. She encouraged his efforts from time to time but only so she could thwart them. Once, when he tried to explain time dilation to me, she hovered nearby.

“That’s Einstein’s stuff, isn’t it?” she interjected.

My father paused in drawing the diagram he was busy with.

“It’s not Einstein’s,” he said. “He just discovered it.”

“I knew it!” my mother cried. “Whenever something doesn’t make sense, Einstein’s involved.”

My father pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

“It does make sense,” he said, “because it’s true. Satellites and space telescopes work because of it.”

“How do they know that time slows down?”

My father looked at my mother and then at me.

“It’s been tested many times,” he sighed.

“How?”

He took off his glasses and cleaned them with his handkerchief.

“Do you actually want to know?” he asked uneasily.

My mother lit a cigarette.

“Not really,” she said. “I want to know about those travelling twins you mentioned.”

“Oh God,” my father whispered.

“It’s about time, isn’t it?”

“Yes, but—”

“Why’s the one older?” she demanded.

My father rubbed his eyes and put his glasses back on.

“Because time slowed down for the twin who travelled.”

“Things go slower when you travel,” my mother agreed.

“Jesus,” my father said under his breath, “take me now.”

“Why not the other way around?” my mother asked.

“Because the one who travelled experienced time dilation,” my father said, “not the one who stayed behind.”

My mother stubbed out her cigarette.

“If it’s all supposed to be relative,” she said, “why can’t it be the other way around? Why can’t the travelling twin say that he remained where he was and that the earth and his twin moved off?”

“There are other considerations,” my father said wearily.

My mother regarded him.

“If it makes so much sense,” she said, “why can’t you explain it to me? Didn’t Einstein say that if you couldn’t say it in English, you didn’t understand it?”

“It wasn’t Einstein who said that,” my father countered. “It was Rutherford. He said you should be able to explain it to a barmaid.”

“So I’m dumber than a barmaid?”

“Here we go,” my father sighed.

“I don’t think you understand this stuff yourself,” my mother added.

“I do,” my father said, “but it takes some mathematics to explain.”

“Why hide the thing in mathematics?”

“It’s not hidden. It’s made visible, that’s what. Mathematics is a language like any other. Unfortunately you can’t say things like she died mysteriously in mathematics, but I could give it a try.”

My mother lit another cigarette.

“It’s about as useful as a wooden leg for swimming,” she remarked.

I’d seen this pattern of argument before. It always started with some law of physics that my mother didn’t like, and ended up at the foundations, mathematics.

“Mathematics is not only useful,” my father insisted, “it’s vital. I’ll demonstrate with something simpler.”

“Are you serious?” my mother said.

My father held up one hand as he drew a diagram of an inverted parabola with the other.

“Imagine the English are over here,” he announced, “with their longbows.”

He pointed at the one end of the parabola and drew two stick men with crude bows. Then he drew two stick men beyond the far end of the parabola.

“And the French are over here,” he added.

My mother stared at the diagram in disbelief.

“Now,” my father went on, “the English see that their arrows are falling twenty feet short of the French.”

He pointed at the gap between the parabola and the French stick men.

“The arrows travel in a parabola, like this—”

“Those archers didn’t know mathematics,” my mother objected.

“Dammit!” my father exclaimed. “Forget that. Just imagine. Ok?”

“Go on.”

My father looked at me. Then he resumed.

“If those mathematical archers knew how to calculate the correct parabola, they could use it to figure out the angle at which to shoot to hit the French. Like this—”

He drew a different parabola that hit the French stick men.

“See?” he said.

My mother shook her head slowly.

“That’s nonsense,” she said. “Just move the English twenty feet closer.”


When she was gone we sat together in silence. After a while my father spoke.

“One day you must do what I did,” he said.

“What?”

“Find a woman who can bring out the worst in you.”


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We’re all transparent in the dark

When I was a kid I was mystified by the existence of my sister. Why, for example, had my parents wanted a second child? Was I not good enough? And why did it have to be a girl? These questions bothered me and because I never got sensible answers from my parents, I took it out on my sister. Demri was four years younger than me and so it wasn’t hard to convince her that she was invisible. I pretended to get a fright whenever she spoke and then I looked straight through her. Demri ran off to ask my mother if she could see her.

“What’s wrong with him that he cannot see you?” my mother wondered.

Demri returned out of breath.

“Ma says there’s something wrong with you,” she announced.

“You’re transparent in the dark,” I said.

Demri ran off to my mother and returned in triumph a minute later.

“Ma says you’re right,” she said. “We’re all transparent in the dark.”

“Yes,” I said, “but you’re adopted.”

“I’m not!” she cried.

“Why’s your hair like that then?” I asked. “Why are there no pictures of you when you were just born?”

Demri wailed like a banshee and my mother came into the garden. I scurried up a tree and sat in a forked branch beyond her reach.

“We moved just after your birth,” my mother told Demri. “Plus, you were sick.”

“I’m adopted!” she wailed.

My mother came and stood beneath the tree.

“Come down here,” she said calmly and lit a cigarette.

“You’re going to hit me,” I said.

“Of course I’m going to hit you,” she said, more calmly. “I’m going to hit you even harder if you don’t come down right now.”

But I stayed up the tree. My mother went into the house to comfort Demri, and then she returned.

“How long do you think you can sit up there?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

Demri and Grandma stood behind her. Demri made the universal sign for a hiding with her fingers.

“Look what she’s doing!” I yelled.

“She’s invisible, remember?” my mother said. “How can you see what she’s doing?”

By then I was aching from sitting in the narrow fork. They went away and I waited. I toyed with the idea of climbing down but it was obvious that the standoff had to be broken by something else. I wished it would rain and that there’d be lightning, that my mother would come and beg me to get down out of the tree, but nothing happened. Demri came and played on the lawn where I could see her. She did cartwheels and ran in circles while I ached up in the tree. Then she fetched a picture of herself as a baby. My mother had shown it to her.

“I’m not adopted,” she insisted.

“You were adopted when you were smaller than that,” I said. “That picture was taken later.”

You were adopted!” she cried.

“I know,” I sighed. “We both were.”

Demri was stunned by this new possibility and began to cry. My mother came from the house again.

“I called your father,” she lied. “He said he’d deal with you when he got home.”

“I don’t know how he plans to do that,” I said. “I’m not coming down from here. Ever.”

“Look,” my mother said, “you’re going to come down eventually. If you don’t come down by yourself, you’ll die up there and fall down. But down you’ll come.”

Of course she was right. But long before I died, someone from the school would call. My mother would have a hard time explaining that I’m hiding up a tree because she’d threatened to hit me. News of this would leak out. I’d be famous. People would talk about the boy who refused to come down from the tree. There’d be a picture of me in the papers, taken from far away. The old woman up the street would bring a hamper of food. Men with coats would come and talk to my parents inside the house.

“Jesus wants you to love your sister,” Grandma said.

She’d pulled up a chair and now sat knitting in the shade.

“Sure,” I said. “He was alone. He never had to put up with a sister.”

Grandma put down her knitting and lit a cigarette.

“Remember how your mother said that we’re all transparent?”

“Yes?”

“We’re all alone, too,” she said. “We’re all adopted.”


My father came home from work an hour later. I watched with some trepidation as his car turned into the driveway. My buttocks were numb and I hurt all over. I’d begun to feel like an orphan myself, thinking about what my grandmother had said. Now my father went in through the back door, and then nothing happened. I expected him to come marching out, but he didn’t.

When it was almost dark he came and stood beneath the tree. He was smoking a cigar.

“How long have you been up there?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I mumbled. “Since 3 o’clock.”

He nodded and seemed to think this over.

“Well,” he said at length, “it’s supper time. Maybe you should come down now.”

“What about Demri being adopted?” I asked.

“I heard about that,” he said. “What do you think?”

“Are you going to—you know—like, hit me?”

My father rolled the cigar between his fingers as he savoured it.

“Remind me,” he said. “How long have you been up there?”

Then he turned and went back into the house.


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The patience placebo

My mother broke things that didn’t work. She destroyed them so she’d never have to bother with them again. She enjoyed it because it gave her a moment of power over an object she couldn’t understand and now couldn’t even use. When the TV remote acted up, my mother stomped on it until the only parts you could recognise were the batteries.

“What the hell is this?” my father asked.

“That was the TV remote,” she said.

“I said I’d fix it,” he sputtered.

My mother lit a cigarette.

“Sure,” she said, “but the TV would have died of natural causes long before that.”

“Nothing dies of natural causes in this house,” my father observed. “Why do you do this?”

“So we don’t sit around like idiots, shaking a remote.”

“But I would’ve fixed it—”

“You can still fix it,” she said. “On your own time.”


My mother’s abandon drove my father insane. He didn’t mind the money it cost to replace the broken remote. What he couldn’t understand was that she didn’t respond when challenged by the universe, as he did, always, regardless of the odds of victory or the timing of the battle. Fighting the universe gave him an opportunity to be patient and that’s what he really excelled at. Under normal circumstances, patience is a virtue. It helps when nothing else seems to. But my father’s patience was so boundless as to constitute a disability. He couldn’t give up on whatever he was trying to do, no matter what. He kept at it long after common sense had ruled out any chance of success. He kept at it because the real test was to keep at it, not to solve the actual problem. If he solved the problem, by some fluke, he complicated matters until there was something else he could be patient about.


I remember one weekend when he tried to fix the light in the living room. The job was supposed to be simple—replace the corroded fitting and be done with it. Things started out well. He replaced the fitting and the light worked. He was done.

“Now get down from there,” my mother urged.

My father took his time to give her a dirty look from up on his ladder.

“This was easy,” he mused.

“Sometimes it’s just like that,” she said. “Get down from there.”

“This wire looks suspect—”

“Come down here—”

He tugged the wire that ran from the light into the roof. The light went out, as did another one along the wall.

“See!” he said in triumph. “I told you.”

Within the next few minutes he managed to short out half of the wiring in the house. He spent most of the weekend swearing softly and standing on the ladder while my mother smoked cigarettes at him.

“Can you go away?” he said through gritted teeth. “I know what I’m doing.”

My mother regarded him darkly.

“When?” she asked.

“When what?”

“When can I call someone who actually knows what he’s doing.”

“Go away.”

My father took the Monday off so he could devote himself more fully to the faulty wiring but my mother had called an electrician behind his back. The man arrived and fixed the problem in a few minutes. My father was deflated but visibly relieved. He secretly admired the ease with which my mother viewed the world but he never admitted it.

“What should I do now?” he wondered.

“Leave things alone,” my mother said. “Go see what’s in the shed.”


In the garden was a shed in which my father kept things he’d rescued before my mother could totally destroy them. Now and then he spent the day holed up in this shed, being patient. Sometimes he got lucky—like a gambler—and managed to fix something that was in there. Those times extended his belief that success required suffering and that his way was the right way. He tried to get me interested in his tinkering but I always disappointed him.

“You’re just like your mother,” he once said.


To give me some spine my father made me do various chores around the yard. Every weekend I had to sweep the pavements around the pool, clean the pool itself, and mow the lawn. The lawnmower was an old thing. Like me, it didn’t want to mow the lawn. My father had worked on it many times but that had only made it more prone to cutting out. I sulked and I wanted to go and play with my friends.

“Be patient, dammit,” my father said and twiddled a few knobs.

“Why’s it hard to mow the lawn and hard to start the lawnmower?” I asked. “It doesn’t make sense.”

He gave the cord a pull but nothing happened.

“What do you mean, it doesn’t make sense?”

“Bad things are easy to get into, not hard. To fall out of a tree I just have to let go.”

He pulled the cord again and adjusted a valve.

“This isn’t a tree, goddammit! This is entropy.”

He started the mower and gave me a long look.

“What’s entropy?” I asked.

“The world’s like that,” he said and walked back into the house.

It shouldn’t be I thought as I struggled on. A few minutes later the lawnmower cut out again. In a fit of rage I pushed it into the pool. It sank to the bottom and sat there, looking suddenly smaller and surreal. A few bubbles and some oil began to rise to the surface.

My father, who must have been watching me, strode from the house with stiff legs, like someone on stilts. He was so angry he was calm. He shoved me into the pool. Then his anger broke free from somewhere inside him. He grabbed the scooping pole and began to prod me.

“You son of a bitch!” he cried.

My mother didn’t say anything about that. She knew it wouldn’t help to mess with my father at the height of his anger. That afternoon, while he swore and banged things in the shed where he tried to resurrect the lawnmower, she laughed.

“Did it feel good?” she asked.


A few weeks later the lawn had become rampant but my father still insisted that he’d somehow fix the lawnmower.

“I should’ve drowned that boy,” he remarked and gave me a sidelong glance.

“It’s a pity,” my mother said.

“That I didn’t?”

“That it wasn’t me. I would’ve killed that lawnmower good.”

My father returned to the shed without a word.


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The balance of things

My father always insisted that there was no such thing as justice. There was only balance. According to him, everything was in precise balance, locked into some larger, often invisible pattern. Each thing—each tile in the pattern—fit precisely with everything the pattern demanded of it. That was how it got to be there in the first place.

I remember an argument between my father and a dinner guest when I was a kid. We were allowed to stay up late when there were guests, as long as we kept quiet.

The argument was between my father and the husband of one of his colleagues. The man was a lawyer but kept using a pseudo-scientific vocabulary to make his points. Then he held forth on the state of the world, on how humans had messed everything up.

“Only two percent of people work the land these days,” the man said, swirling his wine, “while ninety-eight percent of us actually should. It’s not right. There’s no balance in that.”

“What do you mean, no balance?” my father asked.

“The numbers aren’t balanced—two percent rural, ninety-eight urban.”

“But that’s exactly right,” my father said.

“Only two percent?”

My father got up and fetched an empty wine glass from the table. He held it out at arm’s length.

“Is this glass in balance?” he asked.

The man looked puzzled.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

“Yes or no?” my father insisted. “You know, like you’d ask in court.”

“Uh—yes.”

“Watch carefully,” my father said and dropped the glass.

There was complete silence in our living room. My father ignored the pieces of glass on the floor.

“Was that in balance?” he asked.

“No,” the man stammered, “of course not. What are you doing?”

My father started to collect the larger pieces off the floor.

“I’m showing you what balance is,” he said. “The glass was in perfect balance when I held it, weighing down on my hand exactly as much as I was pushing it up.”

He straightened and took a brush and scoop my mother held out for him.

“Then,” he continued, “as it fell, it was balanced exactly with the demands of gravity.”

“So—?” the man said.

“So,” my father went on, “the fact that only two percent of people work the land is in exact balance with the desire to live in the cities. The moment food becomes scarce enough, or cities too crowded, fewer will do so.”

“That doesn’t make it right,” the man insisted.

“To you and me it wasn’t right that the glass fell either, but the glass did the only right thing there was, the only balanced thing.”

The man laughed uncertainly. He wasn’t in his own house and couldn’t start dropping glasses to make his point. To better my father he’d have to kick in a window, at least, and so he was stuck.

“You’re unbalanced,” he said.


Many years later, when my father and I took what was to be our last walk together, he mentioned balance again. We walked along the beach and talked about his illness, about the nature of time and the meaning of our lives. When he got tired we sat down to watch the waves smear themselves into the sand. There was a half-buried piece of plastic that moved with the water.

“It pleases me to know,” my father said, “that this piece of plastic is here as the result of an infinity of other things working together—the currents, the hands that made it, the hand that tossed it overboard, the last wave that carried it to this place.”

He lit a cigarette. Now that he was dying he’d given up on the idea of quitting.

“Seen like that,” he went on, “it isn’t bad that it’s here. It could be nowhere else.”

The water washed over the plastic and poured itself into the line it negotiated with the dry sand.

“There’s great beauty in that,” my father said. “This piece of litter complies precisely with all the things that impose on it. It moves with them effortlessly, like the clouds move, unaware of the wind.”


We sat in silence while he lit another cigarette. Then we talked about the connections between things and how you could choose to see the reflection of one thing in any other.

“It’s a mirror,” my father said, “all of this. One giant, invisible mirror. If you haven’t yet seen that it’s so, you’re like someone who’s never seen the sea. There’s a large and beautiful thing you know nothing about.”


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