Categories
Science Fiction short stories

To Engage With Time


Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, Oil painting, Americana,

What makes Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” painting one of his most celebrated works? Created in 1942, Nighthawks is considered the incarnation of existential art, capturing the alienation and loneliness symptomatic of modern urban life. The following story is inspired by the painting.

I mount the time machine and dial the year nineteen-forty-two. I have a keen interest in the war years. Activities like storming the beaches of Normandy are not high on my priorities list. I stay far behind the front lines. I find the study of American culture during the war years fascinating. I stay away from heavily populated cities to remain inconspicuous. You might say I’m not truly adventurous, excluding, of course, time travel and my voracious appetite for knowledge. I’m a scientist, first and foremost. As soon as I’ve perfected my time-traveling technology, I intend to unveil it in a white paper report and work with a team to use my discoveries for the betterment of mankind.

I finish entering all of the pertinent data into the onboard computer and push the launch button.  Seconds later, the machine deposits me in the small town of Independence, Ohio. On this trip, I find myself on a corner across the street from an all-night diner. My trans-spacial watch tells me it’s two-thirty in the morning. Materializing in small towns on deserted streets in the middle of the night is a proven method for avoiding stampeding crowds.

Illustration of a time machine from the story "A Lesson In Time" by David Gittlin

I’m a bit freaked out by the feeling of emptiness the town exudes. I console myself with the thought that I’ve arrived in the middle of the night and everything is closed except, it seems, the diner across the street.

Through the panoramic window, I see four people sitting at the counter inside. My curiosity peaks as I begin, once again, to study life in the past, this time eighty years ago. This morning will be different than the others in one important respect. It marks the first time I will interact with people and environments of the past. I feel that I’ve learned enough from my previous trips to take this momentous step. And, I can no longer resist the urge to relate to people instead of simply observing them.

As I cross the street, I check my reflection in the large window. I’m dressed appropriately for the era in a blue business suit and matching tie with black wingtip shoes and neatly barbered hair. I’ll blend right in. Swinging open the glass and chrome door, I enter the cafe and take a seat at the counter a measured two seats away from a man sitting by himself. 

The small diner smells of stale cigarette smoke, fresh coffee, and the faint scent of body odor from the man two seats away. To my right, half the wall is fitted with small bins containing tempting muffins, cakes, and breads.  Across the counter, a nice-looking middle-aged couple sit demurely drinking coffee. The man is wearing a gray suit with a matching hat, blue tie, and he’s smoking a chesterfield unfiltered cigarette. The pack lying by his hand on the counter tells me the cigarette brand. The man looks like a lawyer or a doctor. The woman is wearing a green silken cocktail dress. It sets off her blazing red hair nicely. By the looks of the two-carat diamond ring on her hand, I figure the couple is well-off and married.  I suppose the couple is drinking coffee to sober up for the drive home after a festive dinner party.

The man behind the counter approaches me. He is undoubtedly either the owner, or someone related to him. This is an independent operation as so many of these places were before chain automats and eventually Starbucks put most of them out of business.

“Coffee?” the man behind the counter offers. Wearing a blazing white uniform, he’s a smallish man with wire-rimmed glasses who is going prematurely bald.

“Black,” I say.

“You must be new around here,” the man says.

“You could say that,” I reply.

Lifting his eyes from his coffee cup, the man across the counter stares at me. He tips his hat revealing bright blonde hair. Combined with his deep blue-grey eyes, he’s a dead ringer for Peter O’Toole in his signature role as Lawrence of Arabia.

“My name’s Kendall,” he says in a friendly tone.” I wonder if it’s his first or last name. I happen to hate my first name. Who names their kid Saul forty years after the war? It would be a good name for my grandfather. Not for me.

“And I’m Allison,” the woman next to him says.

I’m surprised by the couple’s friendliness. Maybe it’s the late hour and the intimate setting. Maybe people here are friendlier to strangers than they usually are in the other the small towns I’ve visited. Maybe–just maybe–this will be easier than I thought it would be.

Illustration of time travel from the story "A Lesson In Time" by David Gittlin

“My name’s Saul,” I say to the couple. “Nice to meet you.” I turn to the man next to me, half-expecting him to introduce himself. It suddenly occurs to me that the guy hasn’t moved a muscle since I came through the door.

“Ignore him,” Kendall says. “He’s just part of the scenery.”

“I’m sorry for that unkind remark,” I say to the motionless man. He’s heavy set, dressed in a brownish green-striped suit, and looks every bit like a non-descript traveling salesman.

I turn back to the man named Kendall. “If that was a joke, I don’t think it’s funny. People have feelings. Didn’t your mother teach you that?”

The last thing I want to do is get into an argument with these people, but I can’t help saying something.

“You don’t have to worry about his feelings,” Kendall says.

“And what do you think?” I ask Allison. On closer examination, she looks uncannily like Julianne Moore in her role as Clarice Starling in the sequel to “The Silence of the Lambs.”

“Allison is new,” Kendall replies. “She’s still in training. She’s not supposed to talk much.”

“Wait a minute,” I say. “Who are you people?”

Kendall leans down and pulls a strapped leather briefcase from below the counter. He extracts a file, opens it, and begins reading.

“Let’s see. Saul Grossman, age thirty-two, engineer/designer employed by Raytheon Technologies, assigned to jet engine development, invented and now operates a time machine in his spare time. Does that about cover it, Saul?”

I am beyond shocked. Fear and anger compete to control me. Somehow, I manage not to panic. I don’t want to hear the answer to my next question, but I have to ask.

“How do you know so much about me?”

“You’ve been on our radar,” Kendall says. “Now that you’ve decided to interact with the past, it’s time for us to step in.”

I’m still in shock, but a ray of hope may be peaking through the gathering storm clouds. “Are you time lords, or some sort of benevolent time control agency from the future?”

“Sorry to disappoint, Saul. We’re your local branch office of the NSA. We made some adjustments to your time machine after reading your time journal in which you wrote, ‘I’m now confident that I can interact with the past to make the present better.'”

“So, you broke into my house without my knowledge or consent.”

“That’s about the size of it,” Kendall confirms.

I feel my intestines start to melt. “What sort of ‘adjustments’ are we talking about?”

“For starters, we’re not in the past. We’re in a computer simulation where the only thing that’s real is you.”

I try to imagine how this can be happening. Am I talking to naked human bodies floating in an electrochemical solution inside giant Pyrex glass tubs? Are they fitted with electrodes attached to their heads to facilitate thought-transference-voice-activation to their virtual avatars? Or is it a cutting-edge holographic computer program capable of interacting with a real-live me?

I reach into my pocket to push the button on my remote control extractor. I’m not going to stand still for this. Literally. I’ll be out of here and back in good old 2021 in no time–or a few seconds.

Nothing happens.

I try again. Still nothing.

“I forgot to mention we disabled your extractor,” Kendall says with a cheeky wink of an eye.

“So now what?”

“Now you stay here for the rest of your natural born existence, my friend.”

“You’re kidding. Right?

“Afraid not, Saul.”

“You can’t do this.”

“Would you rather be thrown in jail?”

“On what grounds?”

Kendall takes the last sip of his coffee. “We’ll think of something. It won’t be pretty.”

“I can’t believe this.”

“It’s an unfortunate situation, Saul. You’ve become a danger to yourself and the rest of us. You played with fire, and now you’re burned. The good news is we know how to use your technology better than you would have used it.”

Kendall grabs the briefcase and guides Allison to the front door. Before they leave, Kendall and Allison wave goodbye. “Have some fun,” Kendall says. “You’re an inventive guy.”

“Don’t leave. Please.”

“We’ll check back with you in another thirty years, if you’re still around,” Allison says with a cheerful smile.

Outside the door, I watch Kendall and Allison dissolve into ghostly vapors, then disperse into thin air.

The Time Travel Spiral

Copyright 2021 by David Gittlin. All rights reserved.

Categories
Essays humor issues life musings

Gas TV


Thank you gas stations across America for invading  one of the last bastions of peace and quiet I have (had).  I can no longer pump gas with only my thoughts to keep me company. Now I must listen to a moronic advertisement and a news sound bite repeated endlessly and finally an admonition at the end to like Gas TV on Facebook and Twitter. This request is the ultimate example of adding insult to injury.

Gas TV is a new phenomenon, yet I already yearn for the days when I could quietly observe the random mixture of people crossing paths at the gas station and wonder about their lives.

Are you happy? Are you sad? Are you stressed out?  What are you heatedly saying into your cell phone while making those intense gestures? Who is on the other end? What is your relationship?  Are you always enmeshed in some daily drama of one kind or another? Are you well-to-do or have you spent your last dime to impress me with that Mercedes 550e?

I miss the opportunity a gas station stop provided to take inventory of my day’s to-do list.  Gas TV has also stolen the precious minutes I had to re-assess my existential situation.

Gas TV is some asshole’s greedy idea to make money any way possible without regard to my peace of mind.  It is another idiot’s stupid decision to buy it.

Let’s take a poll. Who thinks we need Gas TV? Please raise your hand.

If your hand is not in the air, complain to the gas station manager.

Thank you. Enjoy the rest of your day.

Categories
Africa international issues Making Changes profiles TPRF

Hannah’s Story


Last year, TPRF  partnered with The Adventure Project to help transform fifty farmers into profitable entrepreneurs in Kenya. We are proud to report that those farmers have moved from poverty to the middle class, and are sending 75 of their children to school for the first time from the money they earn selling produce. Here is a story written by guest blogger Becky Straw, Co-Founder of The Adventure Project, demonstrating the impact this gift is making to feed the hungry in Kenya.

I wish I could take you here. I wish I could take you by the hand and sit you next to me on Hannah’s couch to experience her story in person.

I sat and appreciated the modest house, just one small living room, flanked by two simple quarters on either side. A single light bulb hung from the tin roof, and dozens of baby chicks chirped relentlessly outside. Inside, I admired the walls, every inch covered with images. Soccer posters, old calendars, and embroidered wall hangings. Looking closer I saw that they were bible verses, stitched in between happy flowers: “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

Upon our arrival, Hannah shrieked playfully, like so many women would, “You have arrived early, don’t film me yet – I haven’t done my hair!” We laughed and nodded in understanding as she ducked into the next room.

While I waited as she primped, I asked her son, Steve, how he’s doing in school. He modestly mumbled, “good,” like a typical teenage boy, even walking with the gait of a sudden growth spurt. I pushed harder until he finally puts aside his 7th grade indifference and confessed to us his dream. “When I grow up I want to work in hospitality management.”

Hannah With Son Steve

“Why?” we ask.

His neighbor is a hotel manager, and he has a good house, he admitted. There’s also a chance that the President might come into his hotel, and that would be very exciting. It’s a modest dream, but it’s achievable. It’s possible because he has excellent grades and because of his family. Because of his mother.

Outside, Hannah hands me a large package, wrapped in yellowed plastic tarp and tied up with string, like a present. I balance it awkwardly. It takes me a minute to realize, “Oh, this is your irrigation pump.”

Kuyu, the marketing manager for Kickstart, looks at me and smiles, speaking softly, “It’s funny that she wraps it like this. It’s chip-resistant paint. It’s not going to rust or be damaged.” Hannah has had her pump for two years. It still looks brand new.

We tread carefully down a slope to her small garden, walking through trees until we reach a clearing where the sky opens up before us. Fruits and vegetables of every variety lay in neat little rows. Huge fuchsia flowers bloom wildly along her fence. It’s an unexpected Eden.

Carefully, she unwraps her pump and goes to work. Hannah’s farming business has tripled since she purchased her irrigation pump, a fact she is keenly aware of.

Her story is not unique. The benefits of one pump are astronomical. A pump can increase harvests by 3-4 times per year and can irrigate up to 2 acres of land per day. One pump has the ability to move a farmer and their family from poverty into the middle class in just one harvest.

The irony of Africa is that 75% of all subsistence farmers’ children go hungry because they cannot grow enough to even feed their own families. With an irrigation pump, farmers suddenly have so much food that they can sell their surplus in local markets. They earn enough to send an average of 1.5 of their children to school for the first time.

As hard as I try, I can’t think of any single item in America to compare the pump to. What’s the one physical item we have in the U.S. that can transform a poor family struggling to feed themselves into nearly instant middle-class entrepreneurs?

Hannah and Steve Gardening

After Hannah finished watering her garden, she grabbed her old bucket, filled it with water from her small well, and did something I didn’t expect. She began painstakingly washing every inch of her pump free of mud and dirt. Thoughtfully. Methodically. As if she was caring for a precious child.

After twenty minutes she carefully took the pump, laid it on the plastic, tied it up with string, and rolled the hose into a neat coil. I asked if she followed this routine every day.

“No,” Hannah replied. “Plants only need to be watered every other day.” In her own way, she answered my question. I took my notebook out of my backpack and wrote one word in the margin. Value.

Hannah and her husband bought this pump themselves. The Adventure Project is helping to subsidize the costs of the Kickstart program, so that the pump can be sold at an affordable price. No determined farmer is too destitute to pay, and Kickstart has even developed an extended payment program for those truly in need.

With the income generated from selling her crops, Hannah has invested in chickens and now sells eggs along with her produce. She can also afford her son’s school fees, and he will never miss school again because they can’t afford to buy him shoes and socks.

No longer toiling all day under the hot sun, carrying a bucket, plopping water and drenching seedlings, Hannah now has time for her favorite activity, she tells us joyfully – teaching Sunday School at her church.

I cannot think of one investment more precious. More valuable.

This is the Kenya I know and love. The story I want you to be part of. There is no longing. No begging. No swollen bellies or hungry eyes. If there are tears, they are mine. And maybe yours. Welling with happiness. For me, I know I’ve found my calling. The opportunity to play a small role in giving something more valuable than gold; a job.

Friends, we have set an ambitious goal: we want to help 323 other families in Kenya this year. Every $400 will get one pump to a farmer in need. If successful, our funds will help 323 farmers grow enough crops to become profitable – feeding 25,000 neighbors and sending 500 of their kids to school for the very first time. Imagine giving someone like Hannah the opportunity of a lifetime.

“The Adventure Project is incredibly honored and grateful for all TPRF has done to support food, water and peace around the globe. Your support for our Hunger Campaign has directly benefited thousands of people, and your $10,000 gift created jobs for 25 farmers last year. We cannot thank you enough for all that you done and continue to do to make the world a better place. Thank you.” – Becky Straw, Co-Founder of The Adventure Project.                                                                                                                        

Hannah In Her Garden