I hurtled down a familiar road, but toward a dreadful task.
The violent thump of potholes in the beleaguered asphalt called out like a belligerent friend at a high school reunion, jostling me in the cab of my pickup as if the fellow had draped a drunken arm about my shoulder and shouted into my ear, “Do you remember that one time in Geometry where we…” The face of the pastoral landscape was leathered from biblical misfortunes, the fields of ryegrass a pale yellow, as if the friend’s mug had been infected with jaundice. The occasional desolate farmhouse or withered barn stood like missing teeth that he flashed with confrontational pride.
But late August atmosphere gave him a funk that conjured childhood memories: manure, olive trees, dairy farms, eucalyptus, and rancid horse sweat. Some would bristle at the stench, but the old friend had endeared himself once again.
I was on the outskirts of Plumas, having already left the main drag. I had squinted as I passed the relics of my adolescence: the Stop-N-Go, the Country Butcher, Magnolia Market. All remained, most with unidentifiable ownership.
And although there was no stop sign, I made a point to stop at the unmarked, infamous intersection just outside Magnolia Market.
Things had happened here.
It was the only area of town with even asphalt, which locals celebrated with gas pedals and screeching tires. Like an alluring cove that had devoured many a soul, lives belonged to this intersection. And judging by the bouquet stapled to the telephone pole, its voracity had not since been quenched.
I passed the home of childhood friend, Davey Gallagher, whom I hoped, but sadly suspected, had grown into the “reunion friend” in question. The blue oak still sat out front of his family’s trailer. The tire swing we built ominously swayed as I passed, as if mobilized by my presence.
But these sights were beyond me, physically and mentally. I was now on the outskirts of town, heading toward Dad when my phone rang.
“Jay. It’s Maud,” she said.
“I know, Sis. My phone told me.”
“Is he in the car with you?”
Her anxiety sparked through the vintage speakers of my 1980 F-100. I lowered the volume and took a breath before I answered.
“Haven’t gotten there yet, but I’m close,” I said.
There was a silence to her disappointment. “I talked to him this morning. He thinks it’s a vacation.”
“Good. I’ll keep that narrative going.”
“He sounds a bit worse. He called me ‘Maryanne’ again.”
I nodded, unsurprised. He’d called me “Roy” the last time we spoke, his father’s name.
“Just be careful,” she said. “And thank you for doing this. I just couldn’t…”
Sensing her creeping doubt, I decided to reassure her, “It’s for the best, Maude. He’ll love living with you guys. Big breakfasts on Saturday. Talking your son’s ear off about the sixties. Watching baseball games with Kurt. It’ll be great.”
There was silence.
“Are you there yet?” she asked.
She laughed, briefly. “Just text me when the convoy is en route. And stay double nickel, got it?’”
“Ten-four, good buddy. I’ll send up a flare when the eagle is in the nest and watch for bears in the air.”
Trucker lingo was our inside joke. But she grew serious.
“Be nice to him.” She hung up just as I pulled into our gravel driveway.
The house sat on an acre of property, surrounded by verdant alfalfa. One large cottonwood occupied the back pasture, nestled against a pond where I’d learned to fish, but where a flock of ducks now occupied, loudly (my father named each of them and kept me abreast of the flock’s inner politics and goings-on – he has a burgeoning duck obsession I will not go into).
Despite the bucolic setting, the home was in disrepair. Bougainvillea, though beautiful, had climbed its way onto the roof, emulating a blossoming hand of nature that sought to pull the house back into the depths of the earth.
Inside the home was no better.
As the door opened, sunlight ventured in with me, caressing the shadowed walls. It illuminated my father’s mania: boxes piled chin-high, antique dish-ware stacked on every surface, and many, many ducks; duck lamps, duck figurines, duck ashtrays… The duck obsession, as I said, I will not go into. But it began after my mother died.
As I entered the kitchen, which was filled with more duck “memorabilia,” I noticed something equally unsettling: math equations. Taped to kitchen surfaces were notebook pages scribbled with nebulous data. They were math equations along with a single date: September 20th, 1961.
Finally, it clicked. He had mentioned this offhand, which I thought to be a metaphor.
“Son. I’ve solved time travel.”
I hoped he’d been talking about memory in an abstract way. But it became apparent that he’d been serious.
This, of course, was impossible for several reasons. Both physics and dementia aside, my father would be the last man to crack time travel as he was not a scientist. Nor did he possess even remedial knowledge of physics. He was, in fact, a disgraced, small-town dentist.
This I will go into.
Mitchell Hughes was once a budding, venerable young dentist. He was the only dentist in Plumas until a dentist from Sacramento moved to town and offered better dental care at competitive rates. The Hughes House of Dentistry was forced to cut costs to stay in business: cheaper equipment, numbing devices, tools, etc. I will not burden you with tales of brutal childhood beatings from bullies with botched brace-jobs, saliva dripping from their jagged, mangled jaws as they pummeled me into the playground dirt.
Forced to retire and left to his own devices, he now believed he’d made a groundbreaking discovery.
“There’s my guy!” my father boomed as he stomped from the back of the house.
He was knobby and squat with a bulbous head. What little hair he had was gray and electrified. He wore thick, black frames, and a sweater vest to keep a professorial appearance. He was also a forceful hugger.
“My boy, my boy, my boy,” he sang as he enveloped me in a tight hug.
“I saw there were more ducks than usual,” I said.
“I bought another dozen,” he said, releasing me and moving to the back of the house. “Hell of a deal on twelve beauties.” He became mischievous. “Did you see the mallard?…”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Well, let me introduce you!” he shouted. He started for the door but stopped. “We’ll tend to the ducks later. Come, to the machine…”
“Have you packed a bag?” I asked, ignoring his demand. “You hungry? We can grab a bite on the road.”
“A wonderful idea. How would you like a tri-tip sandwich at the Country Butcher?”
“You didn’t let me finish. I say, how’d you like a tri-tip sandwich at the Country Butcher… in 1961?”
I nodded, indifferent.
He flashed a wolfish grin, motioning for me to follow him to the covered porch.
An ochre glow flooded the room, making visible the floating specks of dust that lilted amongst the garden detritus that was my late mother’s hobby.
“What do you think?” he asked, motioning to the aluminum shed he’d dragged indoors. Wires protruded, but not connected to any visible power source. Attached to the sides of the “device” were several alarm clocks he’d shrewdly drilled onto the exterior. Even worse was the spray-painted words “Time Machine” on the front door.
“Looks good, Dad,” recalling Maude’s pleas to be kind. “Let’s get a move on so we can beat traffic.”
“Nonsense, son. We have all the time in the world,” he chuckled. “I finally figured it out. During the trial run, my power source was way off. Then, I remembered we have the trolling motor battery in my fishing boat.”
“It’s just… Maude is expecting us for dinner.”
“Don’t you get it, son? Time is what we make it! We’ll hop to September 20th, 1961, do what needs to be done, then hop right back. No one will be the wiser.”
I looked him over with suspicion. “Why that specific date?”
A smile crept across his face. “That was the day I was struck by a car in front of Magnolia Market. At the unmarked intersection. I was just out of school and BAM! A Bel-Air screeched to a halt and-”
“Broke your wrist,” I finished. “I remember the tale, but why would you go back?”
“It was my collar bone, but yes. That day changed everything. Firstly, my parents didn’t have insurance. Roy had to get a second job just to pay the hospital bills. Secondly, I never pitched the same. I was the best young pitcher in the county. Everyone said I had a future in baseball. At the very least, I could’ve gotten into a decent university. But after the accident? I was never the same.”
“So you’d like to go back in time so you can play baseball?”
He sniffed out my tone, eyes narrowing. “You’ll still exist if that’s what you’re worried about. I’ll still marry Maryanne, and I recall the exact evenings that both you and Maude were conceived.”
“We’ll have more money. Forget teeth! If I’m not a pro, then I’m at least an Ivy League grad. It’ll be a chance to start over.” He backed away suddenly, pacing sheepishly. “I’ll know about the lymphoma. We’ll be way ahead of it. I can change everything.”
He gave me his haunted eyes, the muscles of his face contorting to misshapen knots beneath his porous skin. Mentally, his psyche had certainly time traveled, fraying to the point of transporting itself to multiple timelines at once. It dipped into past traumas as if they were inkwells, his mind forced to write and relive indelible events. Though I desperately wanted to shake him, I feared I’d be waking a sleepwalker.
“Let’s do it,” were the gentle words I chose.
“We must take the necessary precautions,” he said, his eyes clearing.
A bicycle helmet was placed on my head, one I hadn’t worn since I was prepubescent. My father sported an ill-fitting pink helmet decorated with Lisa Frank stickers.
“Maude always loved dolphins,” he said fondly, pointing to the sticker of a dolphin surfing a rainbow.
We entered the shed, the door closed firmly behind us. What little light there was illuminated our living room end table, upon which sat the battery from the fishing boat, my old graphing calculator, and an alarm clock shaped like a duck. My father grabbed jumper cables, attaching them to the battery.
“It gets smoky,” he said as he punched “09.20.1961” into the calculator I’d used for my SAT.
“What if we stick around and stop the JFK assassination?” I joked.
“We mustn’t meddle,” he said with graveness. “We’re there to change one thing.”
I could not see his face, only the glint of light reflecting from the glitter of my sister’s helmet. His sincerity fomented pangs of nerve-deadening depression. I began to sweat from the heat of the metal, the sun baking the enclosed porch, as well as boiling my dread.
“Ready?” he asked.
Cables were connected to the calculator and clock, which caused a brief, luminous flare in the darkness. An acidic vapor filled the space. The alarm clock began to quack, quack, quack until life slowly drained from it. Then, silence.
“Let’s go…” he whispered.
The door was eased open, sunlight greeting us.
We were still in the house, nothing having changed. But after I rubbed my eyes, my father had disappeared.
I found him in the living room, standing in the midst of his chaos. It became clear: I had humiliated him with my kindness. As I approached, I saw the eyes of the old bulldog welling with tears.
“It worked,” he sighed.
“Gene Crimblatt used to own this house. He sold it to your mother and me before you were born. The Crimblatts ran the town dump, and they treated their home the same way. What I mean to say is… it worked!”
His stubby legs moved with a quickness previously unseen since I could barely walk as he scampered out the front door.
“Wow,” he yelled from outside. “Way less pollution. Son, come out here. You gotta smell this air!”
I shuffled outside, aghast as my father sniffed at the air like a frenzied mutt. His eyes rested on my pickup.
“Would you look at that. Gene’s old pickup.” He wandered over to my remodeled 1980 Ford F-100, caressing the hood. “This was when the automotive industry made works of art.”
He sniffed the air, spinning in circles as if he meant to absorb the era.
“Let’s head into town,” he said. “We have enough time to grab lunch, but then we have serious matters to attend to. We’ll take Gene’s pickup. Go inside and look for the keys.”
As he climbed into my pickup I realized the mission was being accomplished via an alternative route. I dashed into the house, grabbing an empty grocery bag. Toiletries, a few days worth of clothes, and some sweaters I know he likes. When I hopped in the truck, he was eager to hit the road.
The lone road was taken back into town. As we approached the very same buildings I had cringed passed, my father eyed them wistfully. “Just as I remember.”
To the old man’s point, it was an area that repelled change, for which it paid a devastating price. Much like Davey Gallagher, Plumas convinced itself in its formative years that it knew how the world operated, fighting tooth and nail to project its ideology onto it. But this impudence left it ruined without the awareness of how it all went wrong.
“Tri-tip sandwiches,” my father said, pointing to the Country Butcher.
Nostalgia’s gentle embrace enveloped me as we entered the Plumas staple. The Country Butcher looked as it always had: a modified general store, oxidized oak head-to-toe, hickory clinging to every surface. Though I had spent my years of single digits darting between my father’s legs in this place, I now stood half a foot over him, which made me difficult to recognize. But somehow Kyle Welber, whom I’d gone to school with, was able to uncover the boy he’d known hiding amidst middle age.
“Well, holy shit. The prodigal son,” said Kyle.
“Bud Welber!” bellowed my father.
Kyle’s jocular smile went sour.
“How’s business, Bud?” asked my father as he leaned on the counter.
“Um… not bad, Mr. Hughes.”
My father nodded, then turned to me over his shoulder, whispering, “He thinks I’m my dad. This is ideal.”
Kyle glanced at me with a “what the holy fuck is happening” look. I tapped my skull with my index finger as if to say, “Upstairs no good.” We nodded at one another with shared knowledge of wizening patriarchs.
“What can I get you, Mr. Hughes?” asked Kyle.
“Two tri-tip sandwiches, Bud. Please and thank you. Hey, how’s Barb these days?”
Kyle squinted, the inner-workings clicking to catch up as fast as they could. “Barb is great. Alive and well.”
The sandwiches were quickly wrapped and slid across the counter. I was about to pay with my credit card but was quietly admonished by my father. “That won’t work here. They only take Diner’s Club or cash.” He turned to Kyle, asking, “What’s the damage?”
“Friends and family. Six dollars.”
My father paid and turned to me, “Everything was so cheap back then.”
The jovial old man waddled out the door, a greasy bag of sandwiches in his meaty paw. He climbed into the passenger seat, waiting patiently.
“Thanks, Kyle,” I said.
“After my old man’s stroke, he was never the same,” he said. “Same happened to Bud, my grandfather. It was rough on my dad. I guess they all fall apart, don’t they?”
I stopped at the door, an idea hitting me. “You know what became of Davey Gallagher? Is he around?”
Kyle returned to his work, breathing a loaded sigh. “Yeah, he’s around… Keep kickin’ around the main drag. You’ll see him.”
The weight of his answer dragged the skin of my face as I shuffled back to the pickup. Davey’s presence, lurking somewhere in the sun-blasted streets, was akin to swimming in the ocean with a shark sighting. He was out there. And though I didn’t know where, through fortune or misfortune, we were destined to meet.
“Everything just tasted better back then,” said my father, juices flowing down his chin.
I pulled onto the main drag, my eyes peeled for a disheveled Davey.
“Where you going?” my father asked.
I said nothing, my eyes still scouring the pot-holed streets and their lunar texture.
“Son. We have a job to do. Take a left down August Avenue.” He checked his watch. “We have a few minutes.”
August Avenue was a roadway beaten into an abject state. It was lined with dilapidated mobiles on plots of yellowed crabgrass and gravel. Sinewy locals in soiled jeans plodded with zombified gaits, skin pulled tight by the sun. A woman pushed a muddy stroller that housed no child, only a hulking trash bag of aluminum cans. Roosters paraded the gutters with mayoral authority, pecking at open trash, while truculent hogs squatted on property with antagonistic gleams in their eyes. Indoor furniture littered the front lawns as if the homes had been gutted, their entrails exposed. It was a street infected with poverty, but much like Davey, I was unsure if it had known any other existence.
“Stop here,” said my father.
We stopped in front of a house I knew all too well. It was the home my father grew up in.
“Same as I remember,” he said.
I recalled visiting this home. Though it was currently in shambles, much like the street it sat on, it never knew another life. Though I loved my grandmother and grandfather, even their warm presence couldn’t counteract the dolorous image of termite-ridden beams and storm-scattered shingles.
“When I make the big leagues, I’m moving them out of here,” said my father.
“That’s awful nice, Dad.”
“Ya know, at this very moment, your grandfather is sitting in that garage.” He pointed to the single-car unit that had a sideways slant to it as if Davey had drank himself stupid and was leaning on the bar for assistance.
“Yeah?” I said, hungry to play along. “What’s he doing?”
“He’s having himself a cold one, playing his guitar,” he said. “He’s just off work, just got home from the mill. And in a few hours, he’s going to receive a telephone call that his son is in the hospital, and he proceeds to throw a shit fit. He ends up picking up a night job to pay the bills, working graveyard shifts as a janitor at the high school. Never sat right with me what I did to him.”
“Dad.” But before I said anything more, he held up a hand.
“When he’d get off work, he’d drink a beer and play his guitar. Momma called it ‘Daddy’s time.’ She’d keep us kids out of there. Rule was: you hear that guitar going, you stay out of the garage. Which was such a shame because we used to love to hear him play. No matter how much us kids begged, he never let us listen. It was just for him. But, of course, we’d sneak up to the door, quiet as church mice, listening to daddy.”
He closed his eyes, the corners of his mouth lifting ever so slightly.
“That’s him there,” he said. “Hear him?”
Maybe it was the faint radio of some distant Merle Haggard that happened upon a late afternoon breeze, but I could’ve sworn I heard Bakersfield noodling coming from that garage. We sat there quietly, listening to the subtle, muted finger-picking of a guitar. We shared a look as if we had a secret.
“Come on, son,” he said, finally. “We’re running out of time.”
I drove us to Plumas Elementary, the K-8 my father and I both attended. I was engulfed in a rush of memories, the barriers that housed them in the deep recesses of my memory failing to hold. The building was no bigger than a city post office, yet it loomed monolithic in my mind. I wanted to run from the pickup, rush into its confines and beg for it to remember me. What once felt like a prison was now a paradise that didn’t belong to me.
A bell broke me from my trance as a surge of children flowed from the school doors.
“There I am,” said my father.
A blonde boy came bobbing out of the doors, meandering and patient. To my father’s credit, the boy resembled the pictures I’d seen of my father at this age, probably eleven-years-old. The boy thrust his hands into the pockets of his thin Levi’s, backpack hanging low from his shoulders, an untied shoelace dragging behind him.
“Follow him,” said my father.
“Dad. We’re two adult men shadowing a preteen. It’s not a good look.”
“You’re right, we mustn’t spook him,” he said, thinking. “Well, we know where he’s heading: Magnolia Market for a candy bar. Let’s beat him there.”
I pulled back onto the road, passing the kid who took his time, kicking a lone pine cone, finding the game in it.
My father smiled at the sight, then turned to me. “He doesn’t know it, but his life is about to change forever.”
The thought crossed my mind that I could end this experiment by passing Magnolia Market. But kindness and the need for gas won out. As soon as the pickup was parked, my father hopped out, alert.
“Dad, maybe you should stay in the car.”
“Yes, maybe I should hide in the back,” he said, pulling the seat forward. “Though, how could he possibly recognize me…” He trailed off after finding the grocery bag of items I’d secretly stowed.
“What are these?” he asked.
“Well… I packed a bag before we left. We’re visiting Maude.”
“Yeah. It’s a vacation.”
“I never agreed to that.”
“Maude said you discussed it several times, Dad.”
“Wait… who said that?”
He backpedaled in his mind, scouring it for objects he recognized, his pupils darting with terror. But as if remedied by witchcraft, he dropped the bag and turned on a dime, heading toward the store.
“Where you going?” I called after him.
“I’m getting some beer,” he said.
“Because that’s what we said we were going to do.”
“Dad, come back, we don’t need any beer-”
“Look,” he was shouting now. “I can do whatever I damn well please! Now what kind of beer do you want, Roy?”
The moment of clarity struck with a cymbal crash. A face of alarm turned minatory as if I were the menace of cause. Then, the fog of confusion returned.
“Wait… just wait,” he said, peevishly. “Wait… I, wait…” He stopped, turning, and entered the market.
I halted the pump, starting after him, but was stopped by the sound of home.
“Jay?” it asked.
I turned to see a man in his late thirties, holding a case of beer. He was broad-shouldered, but with a belly. He wore a thin, summer suit with a nice tie. He’d committed to an eroding hairline with a mostly shaved head. His kind eyes and crooked grin gave him away.
“Davey?” I asked.
“Jay Hughes!” he boomed. He came close, shaking my startled hand with strength. “Holy hell, can’t believe you’re back. How long has it been?”
“Truly I don’t know,” I said. “You look… great.”
“You too, partner. Haven’t seen you since you left for the bay area for college.”
“Yeah, I don’t get back too often. Sorry about losing touch.”
He waved me off. “People get busy.”
“I gotta say, Davey… I was over at the Country Butcher. I ran into Kyle Welber and he led me to believe… Well, I don’t want to say, exactly, but I thought you’d be looking a little different.”
“Oh, Kyle’s just bitter,” he said. “He gives me the ‘friends and family’ rate for sandwiches, but I pay full price. He always accuses me of flauntin’ my money around town.”
“Struck it rich, have you?” I asked, surprised.
“I haven’t struck oil if that’s what you’re asking,” he said with a laugh I remember. “No, I got into the real estate game out in Chico. My license helped me turn things around. Quit boozin’, started investing. Finally, I bought a place in town. I’m seeing what I can do for the area, maybe increase some of the home values around here by getting into development. Bought up some land on the outskirts.”
“So you’re not on a bender?” I asked, rudely, indicating to the twelve pack.
“Ha! No. This is for a crew of mine. It’s Friday, and it’s been hotter’n hell all week. Figured they deserved it.”
I nodded, his story checking out. Shame in my foolishness and elitism tugged at my shoulders, dragging my eyes to the chasm between us. My imagination had constructed an illusion that I had relished; its prideful lens contorting the past and present into lurid cartoons. But it was during my moment of self-reflection that the corner of my eye had caught the shimmer of white.
It was the hair of the blonde boy. He was approaching the parlous, unnamed intersection. At the very same moment, a sonorous rip of a muffler tore through the air. A suped-up pickup careened toward the intersection, its tires celebrating the taste of smooth asphalt. The boy, startled by the noise, fumbled and stepped on his shoelace, falling to the ground.
It all happened suddenly and simultaneously.
Both the driver and the boy realized their fate at the same moment. Amplifying their terror was the shriek of the truck’s breaks, screaming for each of them. A hand moved through space, clutching the boy’s backpack. He was yanked and thrown. The truck fishtailed as it came to a stop. Acrid, black smoke clung to the scene like a battlefield. Davey and I ran toward the mayhem, into the cloud of burnt rubber. But as it dissipated, we saw my father clutching the blonde-headed boy, who was too stunned to cry.
I looked to Davey who lifted his eyebrows with relief, beads of sweat clinging to them.
We watched my father pet the boy, refusing to let him go. What I thought were the whispers of onlookers were actually the mutterings of my father into the ears of the boy. I could barely make out his words, only deciphering the occasional utterance. But I knew I heard, “You’re safe,” and I heard, “Good boy,” and I heard the name “Maryanne.”
By the time we hit I-70, my father had fallen asleep. We were almost to the county line when I texted Maude, “Eagle in nest, convoy en-route.”
“10-4:)” she said.
Davey knew the boy and his family, the woman having been an old flame of his. When we returned him, his mother wept, demanding we visit with her. We were treated to warm Pepsi and Fritos. She told us everything there was to know about her son: how great of a student he was, how well he was doing in sports, where she thinks his father ran off to. My father had eaten his snack but was fading in and out, retreating into himself. Finally, we left the woman in good spirits, her thanking my father profusely.
Davey and I parted with an exchange of phone numbers. I vowed to him to stay in contact, and to myself to never erect such an unreasonable portrait, be it of place or person. We stood in silence, smiling at one another, but before sentimentality could high-jack the moment, my father banged his meaty palm on the hood of my pickup, crying, “Well, I’m tired. You mind drivin’, Roy?”
As the sun had edged its way beyond the horizon, the pink quilt of dusk was laid upon my home countryside. Soon, we ran out of land and came upon a new housing development that Davey’s crew was constructing.
“You know, this all used to be ryegrass, far as the eye could see,” said the man who’d just awoken in the passenger seat. “Jim Nassen owned the property. He’s dead now, so his son must’ve sold it… Jim was nice to me. Used to let me hunt pheasants on his property.”
He was quiet as he watched the homes drift by, giving way to ryegrass again.
“Sometimes I look at this place and I think it’s a damn shame,” he said. “But other times I think I can feel the heart of it thumping so clearly, it doesn’t matter what happens to it. Maybe it’s not all as bad as it seems.”
The pink brightened his face as he stared at what little ryegrass remained, yawing in the breeze.
“Well, maybe on another timeline, you’re still out there, Dad. Kicking around for birds.”
“Hmm?” he mumbled, somewhat startled. “Oh, sure. You got it. Hey, I’m going to shut my eyes for a second. Let me know if you need me to drive, Roy.”
I nodded and watched him rustle, getting himself comfortable.
I glanced once more at the waving ocean of light yellow and freckled green, mixed with the pink glow that was slowly dissolving. In my rearview, the lights of Plumas were just beginning to twinkle. But they too faded as we merged onto the freeway, leaving the rough, rural roads behind us.