THE ELASTIC NATURE OF TIME
Thomas M Ritchie
1. A nearness in place
2. A nearness in time
3. A closeness as of relation; kindred
They had developed a problem talking, communicating-or anyway he had, since she’d grownup. A tough taciturn man he was never much in the way of words. And they were never much in the way of him. He never had much use for them anyway. He knew what he knew, and that was it pretty much. He could get across what he needed to when he needed to, used to anyhow. When she was younger it was easier. She had needed him then, had sought his counsel or comfort or company. There was a divide between them then but a bridge across it. The bridge had grown rickety, precarious, perhaps collapsed altogether. He did not know. They hadn’t seen each other for awhile.
Edward Paul knew only two things, well three, in any depth: tough, masterful, hard headed patience and racing pigeons. Born one and raised the other, he liked the gentle sound of their sound coo, their tranquil calmness when you reached in the pen. They were not as nasty in temperament as chickens. They did not squawk and flop around the pen, flapping about like other birds. Theirs was an almost feminine trust. And they always came home. No matter how far away they flew, they always came home.
Kate was coming home. She had been away to college, had finished awhile ago. He hadn’t been able to make it to her commencement. It had been on the other side of the country.
She had gone off to college four years ago, but the distance was already growing by then, normal teen stuff, aggravated by her mother. He had given her some advice when she had left.
“And if I see you in any of those “Girls gone wild” commercials on cable I’m going to kick your ass.”
She just rolled her eyes in mock exasperation, “Yeah,” was all she said.
The third thing he knew, had come to know recently, was the plasticity of time. The flexibility of it. The way it stretched and folded over on itself. How it could be a far and distant relic, the disintegrating past one moment: the fading of faces like old photographs, the wisps and fragments of phrases from old conversations only remaining. And the next a tangible and urgent thing all around you as real as the day you first experienced it.
When she was littler she would help him with the pigeons. Her mother would have nothing to do with it. She’d spend hours with him, asking questions and enjoying the company. When he and her mother split up it had left Katie devastated. It had been hard on all of them. Her mother least of all, he thought bitterly.
They still talked from time to time, though ever more infrequently. Sometimes she called him and sometimes he called her. The pauses in conversation were longer and more frequent. Even through the silence he felt a yearning, a powerful yen, he could feel coming out of him and traveling the phone line. He thought it was the same on her end. They had a good talk maybe one in ten conversations. It was a constant struggle to stay connected. Now he would see her in person for the first time in four years.
And then suddenly time stretched, folded in on itself: and he is sitting on the porch nearly twenty years earlier. Kate is playing on the floor. She is three and can’t stop talking for the life of her. She is worse than her mother. He sits on the swing lighting a cigarette.
“What are you doin’, Dad? Dad. Are going to ‘moke a ‘moke? Are you? Is that what you’re doing?” Her voice has a sing song, cadence quality to it.
He had a small place he called home, only five acres standing off a country road in the trees, quiet and secluded. It was alee of the world, sheltered and secure, shaded and shadowed at this time of the day. The gravel drive curved up from the road, seen through a screen of small trees. This time of morning it was a cool glade, chilled in the shade, with here and there pockets of sunshine. He stood on the porch, itching to go back to the pigeon coops but not wanting to miss her arrival. It seemed important to witness her pulling up.
She came rolling up the drive a half hour later or so. A small, nervous, strained smile on her face and a radiant suppressed joy that hurt his heart a little to see. Things were much more complicated now, that she should be so cautious of expressing her feelings, seemed to him the epitome of the distance between them. We don’t get to see each other enough for a comfortable state of affairs, he thought ruefully. Also, she often looked as if she expected something from him, and he wasn’t sure what. He had to remind himself again and again that she was a woman now. And if she expected something from you, you had better understand what it was, or she was likely to get upset. The gulf widened.
“Hey Sweetie.” The small strained smile was on his face now. He was happy to see her.
“Hey.” She said, and her smile brightened.
“How you been?”
“Good.” They stood there a moment too long.
“So how’s the job hunt going?”
She looked bleak. “Nothing yet.”
“Yeah.” She said it without much hope.
He smiled confident and reassuring. “It will.”
“Gimme a hug.” She smiled again. He rubbed her back and patted three times and let her go. She pulled back surprised, happy to the point of tears.
“That’s how you hugged me when I was a little girl.”
“Was it?” He did not remember. It just seemed the right way to do it.
“Place looks the same.”
“Yeah. I keep it up as best I can.”
“I love it.”
“Well, I’ll leave it to you when I go.”
“Don’t say that.” She said, serious and alarmed.
“I’m not going anywhere.” That was her damn mother's doing he thought. Kate seemed always afraid of loss, of being alone. The thought of losing either of her parents haunted her. Ed had always hoped she would outgrow it. She probably would; she was young yet, but it still filled him with a helpless anger and frustrated love. He knew there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.
“I know. And you know I don’t like when you say stuff like that.”
“All right.” He wanted to feel annoyed, but he felt mostly chagrin.
They stood there a moment longer, unsure of what to say. “So. Everything going good for you?”
“Yeah. Ok. Pretty good.” She had a slightly guarded quality as thought the question were too personal. And suddenly time stretched again: and it is six years ago. She is sixteen and has called just to talk. She begins to tell him about her period.
“Oh, honey, we don’t ever need to talk about that. Please.”
“Why?” She laughs at him.
“We just don’t. Really, if you need to talk about it, talk to your mom, please.”
“All right,” is all she says, exasperated and amused.
“So what’s new with you?”
“Huh?’ He snapped back to now. His reverie broken.
“Oh! I got some new pigeons.”
“Want to see?”
“Sure.” They headed around back to the coops.
“They’re a couple of beauties.”
“When did you get them?”
“Couple of months ago. They’re just about ready for their first flight.”
“Today?” She seemed excited.
“Maybe,” He teased. They headed back through the bright, open backyard sunlight streamed down upon them. It was warm and diffuse, the color of honey and wrapped them in its golden glow.
“So you been staying out of trouble?”
“Ye-es.” She said impatiently.
“Ok. Good. Still with what’s his name?”
“Oh.” He seemed surprised. “It’s going good then.”
“Yes.” She was angry. She knew what he meant. “I’m not my mother.”
“I do.” He said tersely.
“I love my mom, you know.”
“I know.” He felt impatience coming on. This was an old beef between them. He figured he had a right to ask. It was part of his job.
They got to the coops both a little angry now. She as hard headed as he is. Everything flexed, shifted, stretched for a moment like taffy. Margaret is standing in the kitchen, looking younger and more beautiful than he ever remembers her being. Kate is five and being pigheaded about something. “You need to do something about your daughter.” He tells Magaret angrily.
“Yeah. Your daughter.”
Magaret just laughs a sound like tinkling piano keys being run up the scale. The sound sets a rill running up his back, along his arms. His heart begins to beat a little faster. And he realizes he loves her so much it hurts. “I don’t know what you want me to do about it. She’s yours through and through you know.”
“Well here they are.”
“Yeah.” He smiled. It felt strained. He wanted to tell her all manner of things. About how it was. But she knew. And he resented the fact a little that they would all seem like justifications and rationalizations, of what had been and what was. The past defined the present and the future, except about the future it was yet to be seen how much. Besides, all those things, the past and the history, the joy and the pain, were all just phantoms, specters of memory now. But they seemed the most substantial thing between them.
And suddenly it is dark, night and long gone. A heat wave has just broke, and the star-strewn sky is as clear as a bitter winter’s night. They are sitting in lawn chairs in the middle of the yard. Kate is five and very, very serious and grownup in her demeanor. This amuses him because her feet are kicking and swinging like any kids. They don’t reach the ground. He points out to her the few constellations he knows.
“Oh.” They sit for awhile in easy silence.
“Do you love my mom?”
“Yes. I do.”
“And will we always be together, a family?”
“Yes,” he smiles, “always.”
Her phone rang and yanked him back to now, and the guilt he feels is sharp and new. Did he lie to her then? Were he and Margaret failing even then? He can’t remember for sure.
“That’s mom. She’s getting impatient. I gotta go.”
“You just got here. You see her all the time.” He resented some always being second to Margaret.
“I know. I’m sorry. I’ll come over again. Before I get a job. I promise. Right now I got to get home.” He winced a little at that. That she should not find this home anymore, that home was wherever Margaret was.
And then there is a crease, a folding in time, and it is 1999. Kate is seven. She feels confused and angry. “When we first went away and I didn’t like anybody. I knew you would come for me. I just knew you would. So I waited and I waited for you to come and take me home. But you never did. Why didn’t you come and bring me home?”
There is a pain in his chest; a sharp wedge, like metal, that penetrates much deeper than his spine.
He walked her back to her car and then watched her leave. It took everything he had not to try desperately to get her to stay a little longer, to force the connection. One in ten wasn’t all that bad as odd’s go. But still he felt a need to cling and to keep her his baby forever. He walked back to the coops lost in thought. The day had become overcast, and the yard was dull and gray. He got out his new racing pigeon. Not that he ever actually raced them. He just liked to raise them and then see if they came back when you let them go.
He held the pigeon in his hands tightly. He could feel its fragile hollow bones. It’s pounding heart. Its body heat was immense. Without thinking he clutched a little tighter. He felt feathers stiff and resistant against his palms. Did he really want to do this? Give it up? Inadvertently his hands tightened a little more. The pigeon squirmed some under the pressure. It was not alarmed. It knew him. His eyes were very far away and very dark, mournful. His body was intensely still. Even those who knew him would have said he looked exceedingly angry. The pigeon was very warm between his clutching hands. He was holding it too tightly. Suddenly he flung it up with both hands. He did not watch it fly away.