Though born in New York, Sue Guiney has lived in London for over twenty-five years. She is the author of two poetry collections and three novels. Since 2010, much of Sue’s work has centered around life in modern day Cambodia. She is now working on a series of novels set there, the first two being A Clash of Innocents and Out of the Ruins. Her work in Cambodia also led her to found Writing Through, a charity developing language fluency, conceptual thinking, and self-esteem in at-risk populations via specialised creative writing workshops. To find out more visit sueguiney.com.
A Short Story
By Sue Guiney
“Time moves,” Isaac writes. “And if something can move, it can move in many directions.” Isaac continues to talk to himself while he outlines a path around stacks of books piled high on the floor. “Up, down, backwards, forwards. It is so clear. How can anyone doubt it?” Even after forty years, Isaac keeps arguing. “It’s your loss everyone,” he says. “I’m going where I’m going with this. Come or not.”
A month after his wife, Dot, dies, Isaac sits in his favorite chair by the window, the one overlooking 97th Street and his favorite horse chestnut tree. He and Dot had watched that tree grow from a skinny little thing, tied to the ground by wires and poles, to the towering mess of bark and branches that stands before him now. The leaves are coming back and so he sees it must be Spring. “Do you remember what a shrimp that tree was the first time we saw it?” Isaac asks his wife.
“Who knew it would last so long, up here, uptown, of all places,” she answers.
Isaac reaches for another sip of tea but it is cold. “Ach, already?” he asks, looking around the apartment for confirmation. The wooden chair his mother brought with them all the way from Russia stands solidly against the wall as if to say “and why not?” The baby leaves on the tree outside his window wave in agreement. Isaac reaches for the nearby table to help himself stand so he can begin the long walk to the kitchen where the kettle waits. But his hand falls onto a pile of manuscript pages held together by a cracking plastic cover, and he gets distracted. “Tea later, when Gracie comes,” he thinks and sits back down again.
Isaac smiles. He strokes the cover of the title page with the back of his hand as if it was the face of a beloved child. “On the Theory of Time and Momentum.” He reads the title aloud as if he had never heard it before. Even now the words fill the emptiness of space around him with weight and substance. “I told you. It’s a good title. It means something, like a warning – ‘Watch out,’ it says. ‘Here comes something serious.’”
“Yes, but it can scare people,” he hears his young wife argue. He can feel her take his face in her hands and stare into his wrinkling grey eyes.
“Cowards. I don’t worry about cowards,” he dismisses her with a little too much force.
“Yes, but you don’t make friends by intimidating people,” his wife, older now, agrees with her younger self.
“Look, both of you. Stop ganging up on me. It’s not my job to make friends. It’s my job to teach the truth.” Always the same argument. No matter where, no matter when. He takes a number two pencil out of its usual place in his pocket. A long-awaited mark slashes across the title. He writes new words in a heavy, though shaky hand. “So there,” he chuckles. “Now, it’s perfect.”
Isaac is guilty of pride, sure. But he isn’t guilty of much else, so he doesn’t mind and neither does anyone else who has ever loved him. He heads off to look for Dot in the kitchen, all the time mumbling, “I don’t need your approval. I don’t need it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want it.”
“Okay, okay. You were always a stubborn so-and-so,” Dot whispers in his ear.
“So you say,” Isaac admits. “But you know, it’s time.”
“Go. Go do what you want. It’s not like you’d listen to me anyway,” and she stops arguing. Isaac smiles to feel her kiss of permission on the top of his head.
Isaac finds himself back in his chair in front of the living room window. He settles down and begins to read, mouthing the words as he goes, those words he knows so very well.
Light has speed, which is constant. So far, that much is already known. But time is not as static. We say it flies, but it will be shown that its movement is even more variable than the accelerating, one-dimensional speed that flight implies. We begin, as always, with imagination. Imagination and a leap of faith, a leap that is not inconsistent with the rigors of scientific enquiry. And with our imaginations we will discover that time is an imposter. It is not merely a ship propelling us forward within the sea of space. But rather, it is a puppeteer, pulling and pushing the strings of existence in ever expanding directions.
As he reads he laughs. He points to the yellowing pages and looks around. “You see? How much clearer could I be? Forget all the technical stuff. The idea, the gist is all right there.” And then he starts to argue again. “Okay, okay. But remember when I first wrote this. Just after the War, that’s all. And what did we know then? Only what we could imagine. But what we could imagine was everything. Everything is possible in your head.” The muscles in his thighs begin to tighten. His voice gets louder and louder and his dark eyebrows shoot down like arrows over his indistinct eyes. It all starts to get too much. He can feel it in his chest.
“Screw them,” his young wife says from behind. Isaac laughs to hear such language come from such a mouth. “What do they know anyway? They’ll come around. All of them.”
Isaac was a brilliant young professor when he first had his world shattering idea. But the powers that be said, “Not now. You’ll ruin your career.” His young wife tried to console him. “Genius is always feared. Give it time.” So he waited. He tinkered and experimented and thought some more. The next time, after earning tenure and winning awards, he tried again. “Not now. You’ll ruin your reputation.” So again he held his breath and waited. Okay, there were other books, other articles, other thoughts that turned him into the famous scientist he always knew he would be. But this was his greatest work, his most daring idea. And still, always, it rests in yellowing sheets of paper bound by a plastic cover. “Again, I’m the coward,” he mutters each time, always placing the manuscript back in its drawer.
“Ssh, already. Will you never learn? You’ll give yourself heartburn,” he hears his old wife’s voice, so close he can feel her breath on his cheek. Isaac places the pages on the table and nods in agreement.
Parts of Isaac are no longer in his chair when the doorbell rings, so it takes him a few minutes to collect himself. “Hold your horses, I’m coming,” he eventually answers. He looks at his watch. 4:30 in the afternoon. He gets excited. “Gracie. My Gracie is here,” he says. “I’m coming, Sweetheart. Just you wait.” He pushes down hard on the arms of his chair to help himself stand. He tucks in his shirt and licks back his few last strands of hair. He knows it upsets Gracie when he looks too old and of all the people in the world, his favorite niece he would never want to upset. For some reason, God decided Isaac would never have children – a heartbreak, but so it goes. But He had given him Gracie, and that was now surely enough.
“I’m holding my horses. Take your time.” A familiar giggle comes seeping through the door. Unbolt, unlock, slip the chain and then there she is. By this time, Isaac has already pushed Gracie in her pram, wiped her little girl tears off her face, and recognized the resignation in her old woman eyes. He’s content with the twenty-six-year-old he now sees before him, even though he worries that her briefcase looks too heavy. “Is that my Gracie? Come in, Sweetheart. Come in.”
“I brought you some cake.”
“Of course you did. Do me a favor — some plates from the kitchen and put on the kettle. The tea is cold already. I’ll meet you at the window.” Isaac goes to the bathroom and forces himself to pee; he shouldn’t have to go in the middle of her visit. When he returns to his chair, Gracie is already there sitting beside him, two cups of tea on the table, two plates, a knife and a box of his favorite cake, Sarah Lee Cinnamon Crumble.
Gracie comes to visit regularly. Even when Dot was alive, even then she would come visit, although everyone understood Gracie was there to talk with her uncle. Always, she made Isaac laugh. Always, he made her wonder. Always, they had tea and cake. What could be better? And now, since the funeral, she comes even more. Everyone worried about him being alone. He can see that Gracie is worried, even now. How silly. As if alone could ever happen.
Isaac reaches for his fork, but on the way his hand comes to rest on the manuscript. Gracie notices right away. “What’s this?” she asks. “May I?” Isaac watches her pick up the heavy stack, hold it in her hands, feel its importance. “Is this new?” she asks.
“New. Old. It’s my best work.” Isaac takes a bite of cake and watches Gracie thumb through the pages.
Gracie takes a bite, too. “I don’t think I know this one.”
“Not many people do.”
“When was it published?”
“When? Maybe some day. Who knows?” Isaac shrugs and waves his hand as if dismissing the air. Gracie puts the pages down. Isaac can see a glimmer of confusion in her eyes but she’s finished with those pages for now. Other, more pressing thoughts are pushing them aside.
“You know, there’s a book I’m editing at work,” she says. “Well, helping to edit. I’m still kind of low on the totem pole.”
“Don’t worry. You’ll get there. Finish your cake.” Isaac watches her eat and smiles as she smiles.
“Anyway, I think you’d find it interesting. It’s some physics, some philosophy, but popularized, you know?” Isaac gives a little snort of derision. He can’t help it. “No, really, Uncle Isaac. You should see it. It’s called ‘The Arrow of Time and the Death of God.’ I’ll bring you a copy.”
“The Arrow of Time and the Death of God? Sure. Why not?”
“And it builds on your work in a new way. It really does.”
“On my work? Which one?”
“All of it, I think. Well, most of it,” she corrects herself, glancing at the pages on the table. “And when I told Chris you were my Uncle…”
“Chris?” Isaac puts down his teacup and sits up straighter.
“Yes, Christopher England. He’s the author. He’s a Professor at Yale…”
“Actually the youngest ever to get tenure. He’s really…” Gracie takes a deep breath. Isaac sees an indistinct look come into her eyes and he laughs.
“Okay, Sweetheart. I get it.”
“Get what? I didn’t say anything.”
“Oh, didn’t you? I’m sorry. I thought you were about to say you and this Professor Chris were now, well, you know.”
Gracie gives an old lady cluck and stands up. She walks closer to the window. Even though she blocks his view of his tree, he lets her stay. She looks so beautiful standing there, with the late afternoon sun streaming through the glass onto her face. Beautiful, he thinks, in the way troubled women always look beautiful.
“Now you’re upset. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“No, it’s not you, Uncle Isaac. It’s me. And it’s Chris, and I’m all mixed up.”
“What, he’s married?”
“No. No kids. The marriage only lasted a couple of years. They were young. Still in college.”
“I see. And Dan?”
“He doesn’t know yet,” and Gracie starts to cry, not a lot, just a dribble here, a whimper there.
“Okay, Sweetheart. Come here. Let me give you a kiss.” He tastes the salt of a stray tear on her cheek. “Sit down. Your tea’s getting cold. But I have to say, I thought you and Dan were getting married.”
“No. You thought we were getting married.”
“That’s what I said.”
“No, I mean, yes, I mean, everyone thinks we’re getting married. Everyone but us.”
“Well, Sweetheart, you can’t blame us. After all, you’ve been together for seven years…”
“That’s even worse. It’s Biblical already. When they said, ‘Seven years of feast and seven years of famine,’ they didn’t mean…what, 2,550-odd days. They meant permanent.”
“I know. But it doesn’t feel permanent anymore. And now, suddenly, there’s Chris. But I can’t bear to tell Dan. I haven’t told anyone but you. I don’t want to hurt him.”
“Of course you don’t want to hurt him. You’re a good girl and he’s a lovely boy. But these things happen. What works once doesn’t always work later. Look. Dan’s a sweet kid, but maybe a little boring for a girl like you, yes? And this Christopher with his death of God and his professorship, I’m guessing boring he’s not. Am I right?”
“Yes, Uncle Isaac. Of course you’re right.”
“Alright then. Kiss Dan goodbye for me. And tell him there’s always some cake here for him if he’s ever in the neighborhood. He’s a nice boy, but you’re right, he’s not for you.”
‘’Just like that?”
“Sure. Why not? Now listen. You’ll see. He’ll be fine and so will you. So stop your crying, sit down and pour us another cup of tea. And some more cake while you’re at it.” He reaches over and gives her cheek another soft stroke. “Ooh, such a face.” He sits and looks and then he says, almost without thinking, “Listen, I was wondering. Did I ever tell you about my first wife, Joanna?”
Gracie takes a big bite of cake and her eyes get wide. “So it’s true? You really were married before Aunt Dot?”
“Sure it’s true. What, it’s so shocking that more than one woman could have wanted me in my life? I wasn’t so bad looking when I was young.”
“That’s right, you tell her. You were quite a looker.” Isaac hears Joanna’s voice and gives her a wink.
“No, it’s not that. It’s just that no one really ever talks about it,” says Gracie.
“Well, one thing leads to another,” Isaac explains. “But it’s true. We met right at the beginning of the War, sometime after we moved to Coney Island. We were lucky and we knew it. All of us safe – poor but safe. Plus I had won a scholarship to study up at Columbia. To think, money to study…it was a miracle. But anyway, Joanna worked in the library. I met her back among the Greek Sophists. She was reading when she was supposed to be shelving, and I was daydreaming when I was supposed to be reading. So I was staring at nothing and she thought I was staring at her. She got insulted. I apologized. We had some tea, some cake. Then, you know…”
“What, you had tea and cake and then got married?”
“Well, basically, yes. For months we met, had tea and cake, and of course, also we talked. She was a writer.”
“A writer? I’m a poet,” he hears Joanna remind him. “Remember how we talked? I went on and on about art and meter and semantics. You, with your relativity, philosophy, the rise of fascism. Wasn’t it exciting?”
“Yes, it was very exciting,” Isaac answers and then focuses again on Gracie. “And before we knew it, we were in love. I can tell you, Sweetheart, I had never even kissed a girl before I met Joanna. What a thing! But, how can I explain it to you without sounding childish? It was a passion born of great thoughts and great feelings. And it was unstoppable. So, we married. We didn’t even tell anyone until after it was done.”
“What? Not even grandma?” Gracie could hardly believe it.
“Nope. Not even her, my own mother. But that was a mistake. It hurt her terribly. Not so much the marrying as the not telling.” Gracie shakes her head in agreement. “Yes, well, we made it up to her, though. We visited her all the time. She grew to love Joanna.”
“What do you mean? It lasted?”
“Sure it lasted. Fifteen years.”
“You’re telling me you were married for fifteen years and nobody ever mentions it?”
Isaac looks around. He sees Joanna shaking her head and pointing her finger and he feels bad. “I know, I know. But it was a long time ago. And then came your Aunt Dot.”
“So, what happened?” Gracie asks. “Did you get divorced?”
“No, we didn’t get divorced. Such a thing to say. We were happy. We loved each other for fifteen years. For fifteen years we argued about the nature of truth, the limits of reason. That’s when I first started my research on time,” Isaac says and pats the manuscript. “We both continued to work at Columbia. She wrote her poems. I did some teaching. And we argued. It was wonderful.”
“And then she died.”
“Oh, my God, Uncle Isaac. How horrible.”
“Good it wasn’t. But to tell you the truth, she had been sick from the start. That’s why there were no children. But that’s beside the point. I just thought, after all these years, you might like to hear the story. From me. Somehow, it feels the time is right. You see, it was the greatest pain and the greatest joy all at once. You don’t get one without the other.”
Isaac takes another bite of cake as Gracie stands up to look back out the window. “Move over, Honey,” he said. “You’re blocking our view.” The late afternoon light was beginning to shadow the horse chestnut. The room was quiet except for the gentle clicking of fork against plate. Isaac shifts his eyes over and over, from the tree to his niece and then back again. It feels like a little massage in his head. The leaves nod easily in the wind. Gracie’s head nods easily in thought. “You see, already the tears are gone, things look better. Am I right?” he asks.
“Yes, I guess you’re right. It’s the not telling that’s so bad.”
“The not telling. That’s what stops you dead in your tracks.” Isaac reaches for Gracie’s hand. “Listen, Sweetheart. Do yourself a favor. Don’t be a coward. I don’t mean to lecture a grown-up girl like you, but I’ll tell you this. Speak up. You’ll never regret it. Okay?”
“Okay. But you make it sound so easy.”
“Why should it be hard?” Isaac looks for his niece’s smile, but his eyes get tired.
“Isaac, rest your eyes,” says his old wife. “You’ll lose your sight if you don’t watch out.” And then her younger self adds, “Everyone needs to recharge, like a battery. Even you can run out of steam, you know.” And so Isaac puts down his plate, takes one last sip of tea which, though still sweet, is now growing cold, and lets his lids begin to drop. Gracie sits back down beside him. He hears her doing her best to be quiet, even as she picks up the manuscript and turns the pages.
In time she asks, “Uncle Isaac, is this your only copy?” There is wonder and some concern in her voice.
“Huh? Oh that?” he rouses himself for her. “Yes – the only one with the latest corrections. Probably not a good idea, you think? Listen – why don’t you take it. Hold onto it for me.”
“Really? Can I?”
“Sure. Why not? I know it all by heart anyway.”
“Can I show it to someone?”
“Show it to that Chris, if you want.” Isaac can feel Gracie’s thoughts click into place. He stifles a laugh. He wouldn’t want to insult his niece by laughing at her, but he already knows where this is going. “Sure. It will be a good test for this new beau of yours.”
“Test? What? Of honesty?”
“Pffz. No. Honesty I assume. Bravery. A test of bravery.” Isaac lets go and he feels himself begin to float. As his eyes close completely, he can feel movement in his limbs. A black expanse, like an old friend, greets him. “Don’t go yet, Gracie. I’ll just sit here for a minute. I’ll be back in no time,” he says.
Isaac continues to live within the blackness. He watches his mother on the ship to the New World talking to a man she’s just met. He sees his Joanna in a new blue dress that he notices matches her eyes and is, perhaps, a bit too short. She is reading as he goes up behind her. He sees Dot standing by the stove, stirring and waiting, stirring and waiting. And he watches Gracie turn the pages of his manuscript one after another, with care and attention and strength. With each new page she stares at him more and more. Her staring begins to pull him back. He watches Gracie read, fingering the corners of each piece of yellowing paper. But then Gracie stops and turns back to the beginning.
“What a title, Uncle Isaac,” she says. He doesn’t comment but he listens as she speaks the words out loud. “On the…wait a minute, did you just cross this out? Oh, I see now. ‘On the Practice of Time and Momentum,’ ” they all say together.