The Year Everything Important Happened

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It’s never a good idea to panic when you find yourself in an unfamiliar past and place, otherwise you may inadvertently ricochet yourself all over the space-time continuum like a crazed fly trying to escape a closed window and trust me, I’d already wound up in the midst of a mob hellbent on a lynching in 1909, followed a moment later ducking heavy fire on the deck of a Civil War ironclad warship in the Mississippi River before interrupting an exchange of sexual favors for drugs in an unsavory alley near the riverfront at some point post-WWII and have I mentioned what a sad and awful town Cairo is? Or was, rather, I suppose there’s hope for any place in this world (and all the other worlds) but some spots do seem to attract negative energy more than others. In any case, a panic attack is not going to help but try remembering that the next time you’re having one.  I couldn’t feel my legs, I couldn’t catch my breath, and I really did believe this was going to be the end, right before I heard someone calling

… my name and I was back in the beige on beige Visitor’s Room at Kern County Correctional

… and presenting my passport at the Israeli check point into Gaza

… and standing at the counter of the Agence des services frontaliers du Canada-St.-Bernard-de-Lacolle, just inside the Canadian border with an officer asking me if I was okay, and the room spun back into place, and Dudley Do-Right Time-Travel Cop was suddenly nowhere in sight. “I’m okay,” I replied.  He slid my passport back across the counter and told me to proceed to the cashier window, indicating with a tip of his head a portion of counter at the far end of the facility.  “I have to pay for this?” I asked.

“For the receipt,” he replied cryptically.

The fellow at the cashier’s desk, a slightly more appealing and agreeable version of authority, was also a trifle more forthcoming.  “For to open the gate,” he explained, handing me a slip of cash register receipt.  Without looking at it, I expressed a measured amount of dismay at the wait I had endured. “It has been unusual today,” he agreed. “A disturbance in the force field,” he added.


“Enjoy the play,” he replied, and I could feel the panic rising in me.

“I beg your pardon?” Stay calm stay calm stay calm stay calm stay calm stay –

“Enjoy your stay,” he said, as if repeating himself, and smiled.

And so I returned, shaky but ambulatory, to my rental car, my rifled luggage, my diary and papers strewn on the front passenger’s seat, trying as best I could to maintain what might pass for dignity and calm.  Another vehicle was being waved over. Busy day at the border.

I started the engine, reversed out of the angled parking space, proceeded to the gate and a keypad at window level.  I looked at the receipt.  “Pesez/Press,” it read, followed by # and four digits.  Later, after the gate opened and I was pulling away I wondered if the numbers were different for every driver, if they were random or changed on a daily or weekly basis and what would the point of that be? What would it matter?  Why the extra bit of bureaucracy and ritual?

But I didn’t think it was any coincidence, the code they’d provided.  I didn’t dismiss it as an accident.  The numbers were a code indeed, and they opened the gate.  And they were a message. Or a warning.

“Pesez / Press,” the receipt read, “# 1 9 0 4.”

Tell Rose

I know what you’re going to say – that the psychic was right and what I was doing was wrong, wrong all along, from the very beginning. “Risking your eternal soul,” is how my sister would have said it, if I’d told her.  Instead I tried telling Rose. Sort of.

“Hypothetically,” she replied slowly and calmly, repeating the word I’d just used.  She’s an actress, after all, well-versed in the tricks of her trade, not afraid to savor every cue, aware of the dramatic potential of a repetition, not about to squander the moment in haste.  Or maybe she didn’t believe me.

“I mean,” I said, “if you could – if I could, for instance, rather, possibly, travel. In Time or.  To the Past – ”

“You went to Canada, darling,” Rose interrupted. “Which I admit can feel like another time, if you mean it in an a la recherche de temps perdu way, like America when it was nicer, in the 50s under Eisenhower, you half expect the women to be wearing hats and white gloves. Lately, however, they seem to have caught up with the rest of us plus they have that adorable new Prime Minister, Pierre’s son, and I could tell you stories about him my dear if we were going to take a trip down memory lane yet somehow I don’t think that’s what you’re talking about so out with it.  What happened?  Tell Rose.  And take it from the top,” she added, settling back in her chair as if she didn’t expect to be going anywhere soon.

Now it was my turn.  Easier said than done, though, trying to explain what had happened.  At the border, before that, and … before that. There are problems involved with falling; problems not just in explaining, but in the aftermath: paradoxes and causal loops in space and time, when the future becomes the cause of the past which is the cause of the future which is the cause of the past and so on.

You see, it seemed like hours I had waited in the No Man’s Land of the border office, wedged in between two extended Muslim families who had evidently been there for a while and were resigned to the possibility of not going anywhere soon; the bored children bickered and pestered one another, wrappers of vending machine candy scattered about them while the mothers and daughters or sisters in hijabs disciplined listlessly and sighed.  The men kept their distance and dozed.

In this dimension, at least reasonably speaking, I wasn’t in any danger.  I hadn’t done anything wrong, wasn’t carrying any contraband or weapons or drugs, and I was fairly certain a routine database search would come up empty, no criminal record, no outstanding warrants, no peculiar surname that put me on some Do Not Fly List; detaining me had accomplished nothing except to help mitigate the profiling statistics. At some point a young woman with an Eastern European accent, possibly Polish or Ukrainian, joined us in the waiting room, a flourish on the other end of the spectrum, old white American male, young Euro female, Middle Eastern families in the middle.

Nothing to worry about then, unless some diabolical cabal or nefarious secret agency kept track of fugitive travelers in other time periods and really, how farfetched, how absurd, how silly to even entertain such a notion if it weren’t for the Canadian Mountie Dudley Do-Right in the aviator frames who, I was pretty sure, had caught my act (as Rose might say) in Cairo in 1904 except back then he’d been sporting a dusty black Stetson and I could see his eyes which were hard to forget, rimmed pink with colorless lashes like an Albino’s, the whites flecked with blood.

I heard my name called and approached the counter.  A non-descript officer with professional resting face examined my passport without looking up: no pleasantness, no nonsense, no reassuring giveaway, judgment reserved, gray shaved jowls, same questions again.  Where was I from, what was the purpose of my visit, and trust me when I tell you what I wanted to say was, good heavens why are you doing this, we used to cross all the time when I was a kid, all along the border, here, Detroit, Buffalo, the quintessential innocent American family on vacation, my dad at the wheel of a battered Plymouth station wagon, taking us to see the Thousand Islands, Niagara Falls or Old Quebec, my brothers and sisters and me in the back, the oldest trouble-maker sibling daring us to say we’d been kidnapped, my father wearily admonishing him to not even try it, the guard in the booth giving us a once-over and asking my dad, “Are they all yours?” and then sharing a look, man to man, before waving us through, oh the good old days.

I did my best Seriously-Nothing-To-Hide impression and answered without elaborating, without exasperation or impertinence and probably everything would have been fine if I hadn’t looked up to see the officer from the booth entering a windowed office in the back, one of those institutional spaces you see behind the counters of government agencies everywhere, a room revealed by a window, the business of business on view, beige on beige, file cabinets and bulletin boards, a copier, a water cooler, a coffee maker and that young man in uniform walking in, slick dirty white blond hair retaining the smooth impression of that Mountie’s hat, that dusty black Stetson.  And as he removes the sunglasses he turns his gaze out the window in my direction.

And I fall.

Just for a moment. I’m standing at the back of a dim theater, blinking to get my bearings, the blackness of the room fighting with the golden light of the stage, a man and woman pouring their hearts out up there, a glimpse of a black and white striped bustle, a familiar voice, if I could just keep my balance but there’s someone moving toward me, up the aisle and I have to get out of there I have to run but I can’t feel my feet the way in dreams you discover in a panic your body won’t obey.  I can’t run and I can’t breathe.

At the Border, from “Time Fall, A Memoir”

Bouguereau, “Dante e Virgilio all’inferno”

When in doubt you go back to the beginning.  Call that psychic hotline.  Get ahold of the medium who put you in touch in the first place.  Or, actually not in the first place, or the first time, but never mind, close enough.  I don’t even have to tell her my name or why I’m calling.  “You’re in a lot of trouble,” she says, getting right to the point.  “You’re not supposed to be there.”

“Be where?” I ask; it’s a rhetorical question.

“They monitor the border,” she replies and I know she doesn’t mean Canada’s so I ask her to be more specific.

“I tried to warn you before,” she continues with more than a little exasperation, and the image that comes into focus reminds me of the Visitor’s Room at Kern State Prison, Delano, Kern County, California, a medium security facility where Rose and I paid a visit to one of her old boyfriends once or twice many years ago (cold blue eyes and bad tattoos on a body that made you hear cheap motel bedsprings screaming, Grand Theft Auto, third strike, long story). Like a high school cafeteria during detention, sturdy chairs and Formica-topped tables, prisoners on one side, visitors on the other, guards at regular intervals around the cinder block walls, no touching.

“Where the Living meet Those who have Passed Over,” I say, repeating her words.  “Kern State with mood lighting and a fog machine is more like it.  Or Dante’s map of Hell, there was a bar in New York called the Ninth Circle I did very well in when I was younger.  Much younger actually – ”

“You’re in trouble,” she says again.  “You don’t know what you’re doing.”

“Well, I can’t betray something I haven’t got, can I?  Although I think it’s more I can’t transmit something I haven’t got, but I’m using the phrase out of context which doesn’t matter I know what you’re talking about, the Canadian was in Cairo too, wasn’t he?”

“Just because someone looks human,” she replies sadly, “doesn’t mean he is.”

“I’m not at the Border,” I say.  “I’m Falling in Time.  There’s a difference.  There is, isn’t there?  I was in another time and place. Oh, I see, they patrol that too? You’re saying the government has people who – and I know I’m not the only one so what are you saying, they’re tracking anyone who – what do they call us, Time Fallers?”


“Really? Wow, makes it sound faintly illegal.” I can hear her smirk. “So how do you get away with it?” I ask.  “You have a website, you advertise, there are mediums with reality shows.”

“Completely different, hello,” she retorts.  “Mediums aren’t Interlopers. And no one believes us anyway, we’re entertainment, harmless, what you’re doing is dangerous, you’re going to get hurt, you’re Crossing the Line and no pun intended, you can’t get away with it.”

“I’m not trying to get away with anything,” I shoot back and am about to ask her why she thinks I’m trying to when she interrupts and tells me to be careful and not to call her anymore.

She was right, of course.  What I was doing was different.

I just didn’t understand at the time why that would be so bad.


The past follows us like a shadow.  Like an acrobat miming our moves, those contemplated and those accomplished a moment ago. A delay in time. In Time.

I’ve been away so long, can I get back?  All it takes is time.  Time and money.

A talent you can’t control is not a talent.  It’s not potential either. Or maybe it is but what does that mean?  Everyone has potential, potential is like breathing, you have all the potential in the world, what are you doing with it?  What are you doing? Think what the world would be like if we had encouraged everyone to learn telepathy, astral projection, if we had developed the ability to heal ourselves with thought, move things with our minds.  Instead we invented personal computers.  And robots.  And FaceBook.

What if Falling was an Art you could be taught?

Stopped in customs on the Canadian border of all places.  To think there was a time I was stopped in the Gaza Strip, guard towers with machine guns pointed at me, the Egyptian driver with gold teeth and a goat in the back of the battered pick-up, demanding more money.  Life and death.  Now it’s a Quebecois boy in a Mounty’s hat and a sneer, aviator sunglasses reflecting my sad face in the window of a rental car, an opportunity to be unkind to an old white American, worse, an old white American from Los Angeles.  They make me pull over, they search the vehicle.  There are two of them now, one becomes engrossed in my diary, and the maps of cemeteries and streets in Troy, New York, and lists of dates and places, and addresses scribbled, oh William what have you gotten me into?  I carry my diary so I have something sensational to read on the train, says Gwendolen to Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest and I do, and oh I certainly do, oh god yes indeed, because my account of my trip to Cairo Illinois in 1908 is filled with vivid details of the Past and a mob and a lynching which makes for riveting reading if you are a bored border guard and I realize I’m not going anywhere for a very long time.  You don’t belong here, the man said over the shoulder of an actress on the dock in Cairo in 1904, and here he is again.  Here he is again.

And then it is Christmas, and I am at a monastery in a canyon in California, feeding chickens with a beautiful young man who has decided to give his life over to the contemplation of the Divine, in a place Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard used to visit, oh my dear young man, I think.  oh my dear I was just in Canada, it seems only days ago.  How has this happened? Where have I been?



Never try Falling while driving. That’s another rule. Like having a conversation while the radio is tuned to a song you’re trying to remember the lyrics to, or perhaps a not quite audible but potentially interesting talk show. Rose at the wheel, the GPS app interrupts “This American Life” to give directions and a panicked voice inside you competes with Ira Glass chatting with his radio guest while you concentrate on responding to queries from the driver about where you’d like to stop for lunch. Except someone closer than the back seat is leaning forward and hissing in your ear, an impatient writing partner hovering at your shoulder, shadow over the keyboard, clucking and snorting as you type, suggesting edits.

In 500 feet turn right onto

Today’s guest is

If you like Indian, there’s a place downtown Troy serves an excellent

There used to be a fence along there, look up look to your right no over there now look that was the view oh god that was the

I think we’re headed in the right direction, observes Rose.

It’s over there, I try to say, hoping the words don’t sound hoarse or loud, as if I’m talking over someone else, which I am.

You think? Rose replies.

I don’t dare answer.  I don’t want to look down at my hands because they won’t be mine, they will be whittled down to bones and veins, speckled with liver-spots like bits of broken brown egg shell, trembling in frayed white cuffs with brass studs and the wool jacket sleeves of a suit – no, this is not what I am wearing in this world on this late rainy morning in this four-wheel drive Subaru with Rose in this American life and not the passenger seat of a battered black Ford pick-up smelling of old apples and horses and tobacco and sweat, bouncing and rumbling up a dirt road and the white farmhouse on the hill in the distance off to the right is coming into view and what I am feeling, the sinking heart, the nervous hands, the sense of loss is out of proportion and disconnected to the world I inhabit and I really need to stay here and witness, not fall back into Then.

Finding the Way


On the way to William Macauley’s last home, Rensselaer County, New York, October 2016, photo by the author

I am remembering.  But now I seem to be forgetting as well.  Recent gaps have appeared, holes in the narrative. Or not holes as much as partial truths, incomplete reconstructions. That is why it is so important to write down everything as soon as possible afterward.  Because even as I write, there are times I begin to wonder and to doubt and to second guess.

I can tell you this: I never planned on changing the Past.

Not true.

I did not start out trying to change the Past.

A little bit true.

I did not start out trying to change the Past in any big way. Not like people going back to kill Hitler or trying to stop the assassination of President Kennedy.  Nothing big like that.  Yes of course I knew all about that butterfly, how stepping on it has an Effect, how it will change the way English is spelled and alter the course of events and the outcome of elections.  (Ray Bradbury, “A Sound of Thunder,” first published in Collier’s Magazine, June 28, 1952, four months after William Macauley departed this plane of reality).

But then I discovered I could Fall.

And then I found myself in Cairo Illinois in 1904 and I realized a lot of what I thought about the world and the Past was simply wrong, that a great deal of what I’d been taught and led to believe about the way Time worked just wasn’t true.  And more than that I discovered there were powers at work devoted to keeping it that way; forces out there dedicated to protecting our ignorance, intent on maintaining the status quo on all planes, in all realities, times and places.

No wonder Change was so difficult.  No simple back-space-and-delete: real change would require a more complicated process, like the old days with carbon copies, try and correct your mistake on the top layer but you still had two or three layers beneath and how could you fix those other versions?  What you did mattered on multiple levels, Press Hard You Are Making Three Copies.  No wonder Karma worked and History kept repeating itself.  And Reincarnation: coming back over and over again to get it right, to change, to evolve.  You might be able to do it eventually but you had to work at it, it wouldn’t be easy.  It would take Time.

And so, if somehow you stumbled on a way to go back and recalibrate, say, or readjust, or fix the Past, wouldn’t you want to try? Like you, I’d been told all my Life that the Past was Past, Yesterday was Gone, Nothing I could do would ever fix it, I would have to live with my mistakes for the rest of my life, I’d be punished forever, forced to regret until the day I died, Too Late, What’s Done is Done, but now here was a chance to achieve the impossible, to undo, try again, Start Over, and you want to know why I would dare? Really, why?  Given the risks, considering how dangerous, how uncertain, why?  Why would I take that chance?

At the time, the answer seemed perfectly obvious: because I wanted to help you.

Not quite true.

Or perhaps because I thought if I helped you, maybe you would help me.

Finding You


City Directory, Troy, New York, 1887, William Macauley (“Wm. McCauley”) age 17, working as a shirtcutter at 70 Sixth (Avenue), a shirt factory (unidentified); b. (boarding at) 32 Eleventh (Street), Troy (structure still standing though much altered).

In our story, William’s and mine, are to be found the names of ancient cities, sometimes mispronounced.  Cairo.  Troy.

It was cold in Cairo that time (see the previous entries).  Not Indian Summer like it was in Troy.  I forgot to mention that.  I hadn’t dressed for it, hadn’t planned on being there for so long.  Exactly how long is a story for another time, but for the moment know that it was cold in November of 1909, colder still in February of 1904. I learned then that you can Fall and feel the seasons of the past, the weather and climate, along with the more immediate sensations. Fear. Sadness. Regret. Panic. Terror. Love.

I should probably be clear, though. You don’t need Falling to find someone.  There are city directories for that.  The Nineteenth Century loved measuring itself; counting its citizens, its streets and roads and alleys and lanes, its size, bulk, girth and growth, its buildings, businesses, bridges, banks, births, laborers, widows.  Impressive tomes when you line them up on a shelf, the important local enterprise taking over the cover for advertising, the biggest Dry Goods Department Store, for example, and oh the advertising, the things to buy, places to see, go, spend your money, invest, how much like Look At Me the city directories are, brag books of numbers and statistics.  Look At Us, they exclaim, how big we are, how fast we are growing, expanding, how many, how much, how often.  Add the city directories to the national census records, the voter rolls, the passenger ship manifests, check the obituaries and local news in the local papers and it isn’t that hard tracking someone down.  You don’t have to Fall in Time to find a person.

I did not Fall to find William Macauley.  You could argue that Falling was a way to make the research come alive, or that I was simply imagining the facts into greater reality, but the truth was exactly the opposite.  I didn’t have to imagine.  I already knew the facts anyway, in a fashion.  I didn’t need to study the city directories – which, unlike census records, only list heads of household, not dependents, and not women unless they are widows, and not children unless they are working – I wasn’t perusing the microfiche and scanning the fragile brown disbound pages to find proof or evidence.  Been there, done that, you could say, and literally. The research was great fun, however, like a game, a puzzle, a treasure hunt, and you could not ask for better companions to play with than the archivists and research librarians and historical society staff I met along the way.  Barbara and Cathy and Rose, you are treasures yourself and thank you!  But I wasn’t really looking for something or someone I didn’t know.  I was being guided and directed and reminded of what I had forgotten.

I was remembering.



I don’t know about you but when I find myself somewhere I am not supposed to be, my first impulse is to not be.  To run.  To get the hell out of there.  In this instance, however, where would that be, exactly? And where was I going to go? Based on the way the stranger in the crowd was staring at me, I needed to figure that out because I was definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time.  And I was not invisible.

We want rules and laws; we seek them out, demand them, would make them up even if they did not exist.  A child bangs a cup on the table to determine the rules of engagement in this world, the laws of solidity, throws food to develop theories of aerodynamics, axioms of weight and mass, grabs and bites toys to test the way the world works, tastes, bends, reacts.  She reaches for your nose and although flexible, it does not come off; she sucks your finger and no milk issues forth.  These are things worth remembering.  This I can move and has potential; that resists my effort and is of lesser importance.  Reality thus achieves dimension, value, certainty.  So what then, if suddenly and without warning, the cup you’re banging so satisfactorily and loudly sinks through the tabletop like a spoon into pudding?  What do you do if the Cheerios tossed in the air remain there obstinate, suspended, defying gravity?  How do you react when the plush lamb thrown from on high stands up and walks away?

I had not been falling all that frequently, you understand; I was a child testing the system, seeking out the limits, searching for the parameters governing the process.  As I’ve said, the trick was falling in the first place; coming back had never been a problem.  Coming to was more like it, not unlike starting awake from the edge of nodding off.  Or like catching your breath, shaking off a daydream.  In truth, mostly what I had experienced, up to this point, was more akin to watching a movie playing on someone else’s laptop, about as vivid as glimpsing an episode of a show you’ve seen before but now on the iPad of the stranger in the seat next to you. As substantial as that, at an inconvenient angle perhaps, distorted yet familiar and real but without depth or substance except for the memory and then you catch yourself and look away.

Except I could not look away, and now the stranger’s hat was not a black bowler but a variation of the cowboy hat the Canadian Mounted Police wear, and his eyes were hidden by the reflecting mirrors of aviator sunglasses and I did the only thing I could think of doing.  I ran.

I don’t recommend it.  If you ever fall, don’t run.  It’s probably one of the most important rules of the process I was to regret not discovering sooner, and yet one more time common sense dictated I do precisely the opposite. I can hardly be blamed; it is not an unnatural desire to deny: ask me if I did something wrong and my first inclination will be to say no.  Likewise, tell me to stop and I’m almost certain to keep right on going.  Hence police pursuits that end badly.

What happens when you take action in an alternate time and place, however, as I would come to understand, is that you mimic the movement of the stream or current you find yourself in; you provoke a comparable energy.  So I broke into a panicked run in Cairo Illinois in February of 1904 and consequently the Time continuum rose up to match that action, or complement it, you might say, and the tabletop turned to pudding, Time became fluid, history rippled, events fell off at my touch.

I had never seen a Civil War gun boat before, but I saw them then: half submerged tanks, menacing metal alligators floating in the muddy brown confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.   And then Time shifted again like a blow to the head and I heard and smelled an angry mob headed my way, sweat and rage like kerosene and burning rubber: this was the crowd of men and women who pursued and lynched Will James, a black man accused of murder in Cairo in 1909, tearing his body apart, setting fire to his remains and leaving his severed head on a pole in the town square for days afterward. One of the worst lynchings in the history of America. And I could tell you Cairo is a terrible place that fell into a decline as a result after that, because of the vicious hate-filled stagnant air of the place, or because of the decline of river traffic and years of flooding and the relocation of business and commerce but none of this meant anything to me in the moment, nothing mattered except the fear in my lungs, propelling me away across space and years, heaving, stumbling terrified into the jumbled darkness of the past.

I can tell you this because I survived.  But I can’t tell you how, or how long I was gone because no time elapsed on this side, in this reality.  Perhaps you have dreamed you needed to escape some terrible danger and your legs would not cooperate, you felt like you were trapped in mud up to your waist. Or you were drowning which seemed to take your breath away and seemed to last forever, and then you woke gasping in the thin light before dawn.

It was like that.



Once you discover you can do this, it’s all you want to do. You withdraw, you make excuses, you want to be left alone, you want to do it all the time. It’s like the discoveries of your youth, like being young again and your mother is so exasperated, literally wrings her hands at the dinner table and asks what’s wrong with you these days and your father and older brothers look away in the stillness that falls and in retrospect you see them exchanging looks not quite under the table as if they know or can guess and aren’t going to let you in on the secret but you’ve managed to find out anyway and you have clarity, the world now makes sense.  And you understand why sex is a secret and never discussed and why alcohol is forbidden because if secrets like these ever get out, who will want to do anything else?

And now this.  Falling.  It has arrived late in life, or it has returned because it was something you could do as a child before you had the language to describe it. The trick is not to analyze the process because logic will pull you right out, you can’t look at Amtrak maps, the City of New Orleans’ route from New Orleans to Memphis to Chicago and places in between, the song Arlo Guthrie sings won’t help, Good Morning America how are you, the train doesn’t even stop anymore in the places you are going; the distance from Dyersburg, Tennessee to Cairo, Illiinois is about a hundred miles, an hour and a half by car but this kind of research will bring you out of the Fall.

The hardest part first, however, the part you resist, will be the involuntary reaction to not let go; the nausea if you try to.  More than one woman, several in fact, independently of each other, have told me the same story: as young girls their fathers said to them, “Fall back and I’ll catch you.”  While standing on the edge of a back porch, teetering on the top of a garden wall, on a dock on a small lake; the father below, in the water, in the grass, arms out.  “I’ll catch you,” he promises. The exhilaration as each of them innocently struggles with temptation, fighting the natural impulse, the disinclination to obey.  “I’ll catch you,” he says again. And then they close their eyes and fall back, and he doesn’t.

The shock is worse than the fall.  More memorable not feeling those familiar safe hands, waiting until it is too late for the anticipated grasp of strong arms, a disappointment that lasts forever. “Never trust a man,” he tells her afterward through her tears. “Never trust a man who says he will catch you protect you save you wait for you won’t hurt you.”

Lessons of childhood.  A lesson boys and girls learn in different ways.  No one is going to catch you.  That’s the fear. And you are not wrong.

Cairo, pronounced in a way you’ve never heard before, KAY-row, a train station more like a loading dock or a wharf, or maybe it actually is a wharf, barrels and bales and a cold bright day in February, men laboring, laborers, boys, workers, white and black, sailors of a sort but no salt in the air, this is a river town, the train is the City of New Orleans to Chicago by way of Memphis, sometimes following the Mississippi.

Shiny milk and tar streams, cream and coal black stripes of cheap polished cotton to look like silk pulled up in a bustle trimmed with acid green emerald bows to match the one at her throat, it’s the dress from Act Two. They’re staring, I am, you are saying, of the men the boys the black and white eyes on us, you are saying and I am hearing you, the anxious tone, the wonder and she replies – you see her lips, the beauty mark on the dimple the powder and the rouge on cheeks the wild green of her eyes – that’s the point silly, give me your arm, look at me, laugh like I’ve said something terribly funny, and you / I / we are actors doing our parts we laugh, we see our breath on this cold February morning in 1904, no sleep on the train, a matinee and an evening performance Saturday in Cairo, another town, another theater, here with the actress who loves the one you love or says she does, and she is not afraid of anything and you trust her.

And then it happens, just at that moment that you / I / we realize where we are, where I am rather, at the same moment I become aware of someone else.  An intruder.  No more than a glance in passing, a bowler hat that shadows a profile, a brushing of black and white stripes as he goes by, a stirring in the air that catches my attention but not hers and he looks back and I know that he knows I should not be there.  He sees me.  Not you, not William, not our leading lady.  Me. And I know with a sinking feeling as the nausea rises up, the dread, the sudden cold stab of fear, that I am not invisible, and I am not alone, that he is also from my time and place. And he can see me, and knows my secret.

Things to Worry About


Tamara de Lempicka, Self-Portrait in a Green Bugatti, 1929, oil on panel, Private Collection, Switzerland

I think of Blyth Daly and I think of Nick Carraway’s friend Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby: Jordan the cynical, self-centered golfing friend of Daisy’s who’s based on another athletic young woman Fitzgerald knew but sometimes types become types because everyone knows one. Iris Storm, driving her Hispano-Suiza in The Green Hat in 1924; Tamara de Lempicka the Art Deco artist painting herself behind the wheel of a green Bugati in 1929; Nick telling Jordan she’s a bad driver in The Great Gatsby, but that’s the point, the modern emancipated woman, the woman without a man, the careless girl at the wheel.

William and I are in L.A. at the same age.  At different times, but that’s not the point, we are here. William, me, and you. Whoever you are. This is about you or you wouldn’t keep reading, this is about the you who wonders if you should worry about the Past or the Future and where you were or might have been, then, now. Where am I? you ask. What part of this is mine? Who’s driving? Who is the Villain of the piece? We fall back to find out.

Is Time the Villain?  1933 and that Art Deco ivory Bakelite clock is ticking, little bronze beauty on top, striding in silhouette in her evening gown, being dragged by Borzoi hounds into tomorrow.  Or is 1904 the year everything happened? No, you want a flesh and blood bad guy in a black hat, a naughty femme fatale behind the wheel, easy to identify with the bobbed hair and Kohl eyes.  Sheilah Graham, born in 1904, grows up to be a showgirl, has an affair with F. Scott, becomes a gossip columnist who can make and break careers in Hollywood. I wonder if she was a bad driver.

In 1933 Bridal Wise has a run at El Capitan in Hollywood and F. Scott’s Tender is the Night is published and it’s a flop, it’s a different time and place, Gatsby is the Past, Zelda has been institutionalized, Fitzgerald has seven more years to live before he drinks himself to death, in 1933 he writes a letter to his daughter at summer camp telling her all the things she’s not to worry about, like the future, and things she should worry about instead like being good but it’s a laundry list for himself of things he is struggling with that he’s pawning off as fatherly advice on an eleven year old child, if there’s anything you want to go back to the Past to do it’s to tell children not to listen to their parents, don’t take on their misery, don’t let them project their fears or hopes onto you, don’t take on their neediness, worry about your own future, not theirs.

I wonder if that’s what happened to Blyth? Daughter of an artist, did she ever get a letter from Daddy who told her how to live her life? Is that what fathers do? In 1933 William is a man without children, not a father, I am the same age, another man without children, how would either of us know what to do with a child?  In 1933 my father is 16 years old and still a child, an only child, and it will be years before I come along to take on his list of things to worry about, years before I assume his struggles, his unhappiness, his regrets, and when the time comes I will do it before I even possess the language to refuse, before I am even able to say, this is not mine, this is your list, not mine.

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