Timothy Gaddo has self-published two novels and a memoir. Raised in Wisconsin, he spent most of his life in the Minneapolis area, and his career in the control center of an electric power utility.
It began with a plain brown envelope.
It was addressed to me, postmarked in Babcock, Wisconsin. Return address: an infinity symbol.
It was junk mail, no doubt, and I should’ve tossed it, but I’m a sucker for these things. Just gotta open ‘em, see the pitch, learn what wonderful opportunity I’m about to miss. I tucked my other mail under my arm and opened the brown envelope as I walked my driveway to my house.
Centered near the top of the letter, in 22-point type, were the words: Intervention Legal Services.
Below that, on the left margin, in 12-point, was:
Homeworld Service Center
Tachyon Probity Division
Temporal Enhancement, Inc
Subject: Ory Hunter
Now you know why I open junk mail. Occasionally, I find a new pitch; something unique, and this one deserved a prize.
That’s me, in the subject line. I live alone in a small rambler northwest of Minneapolis; far enough from the metro to keep expenses down, but close enough to snag customers for my seasonal services gig: winter snowplowing, spring and fall weed & feed, summer lawn mowing. Been doing it since high school, when my parents still owned the house. I bought it from them when they retired to Scottsdale ten years ago.
The rest of the letter pissed me off.
Dear Mr. Hunter,
You have been identified as a person of importance to an event still in your future, an event important to the human species. This office is charged with ensuring such events transpire, i.e. you must live until said event occurs. At your present rate, we regret to inform you, you will not. Do we have your attention?
You’re only 37. You still have time to begin improving your health. If you choose not to, this office will be forced to send a temporal agent through the tachyon stream rendering engine, a procedure fraught with peril for the agent, and enormously expensive. If your health improves, I promise you will hear no more from us.
Sincerely, Bob Kuenhold, TEI Truancy Chief
It had to be from my Uncle Orv, the meddling old goat. He and Aunt Lilly lived in Chicago. I used to see them a lot before my folks retired.
Orv was a CEO for hire. He’d bounced around a lot and made a ton of money. He was a health nut, and he’d been carping about my weight ever since grade school. He does some writing, too. Published a few novels. It’d be just like him to concoct this letter.
Ok, ok. I’m 35 pounds overweight. Or 40. It varies. I’m big-boned, ok? Reminding me of it just pisses me off. I dropped a customer once because of it. A grandmotherly type who just couldn’t stay off my back about it, couldn’t quit telling me how great I’d look, how the girls would... Look, I’ve tried dieting. It gives me a headache. And I don’t have time to work out.
I stuffed Orv’s letter into my recycling bin and reheated the Chinese I’d picked up. I couldn’t stop thinking about it though. The gall of the man! I worked myself into a lather, picked up the house phone and opened the address book I’d inherited from the folks. Ma had copied the friends and family data into her new book, and left me the old one with all the local numbers they wouldn’t need in Scottsdale. Orv’s number was still there, even though I’d never called him.
Lilly picked up after the fourth ring, and I identified myself. “Oh, Ory,” she said, “how nice to hear from you. Your mom said you’d probably call.”
“What?” The mention of Ma was confusing, but I wanted to get Orv on the line while I still had a head of steam. “I’m sorry, Aunt Lil, but I really wanted to talk to Uncle Orv. Is he there?”
“Oh, my,” she said. “Oh, my oh my. Dot hasn’t called you yet. Dear me. She said she... What’ll I... Why, I’ll just tell you myself. Ory, dear boy, your Uncle Orv died.”
Ok, that was a shock. Not that I was upset or anything. It surprised me is all. Orv was five or six years younger than Dad, and being such a health nut, I figured he’d live to a hundred.
“Oh, no. Aunt Lilly, I’m so sorry to hear that,” I said, forgetting the reason for my call.
“Thank you, Ory. It was rather sudden.”
“But he was so healthy”
“Too healthy. He had a checkup when he turned fifty, over 15 years ago, and called it a waste of time. Said he wouldn’t go back until he had an actual problem.”
“How did he die?” Oops. That might have been a little insensitive. “Oh, I’m sorry, Aunt Lil. I shouldn’t have asked that.”
“Oh, don’t you worry about silly things like that. You don’t have to walk on eggs around me, Ory.”
“Well, thanks, Aunt Lilly. So...”
“He was fly-fishing up in Wisconsin, with two old friends. They said he just fell over and went floating down stream. It took them ten minutes to catch up to him, and by that time...”
“That’s terrible. Just terrible. When did this happen?”
“Be two weeks tomorrow.”
“I would’ve called you, but Dot said you wouldn’t be able to come cuz of your business. Funeral was mid-week. Your mom and dad stayed on with me a week or so. They left three days ago. Dot said she’d call you soon as they got back.”
“I... I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
“Well, it’s not your fault, dear. In fact, it very likely was Orv’s own fault. They said it was a heart valve problem. Something they’d have caught if he’d been having regular checkups.”
“Oh, that’s so sad.”
“Well, he had a long life, and lived it his way.”
I talked with Lilly five more minutes, and then I remembered why I’d called, and I couldn’t let it go. I had to know.
“Aunt Lil, do you know if Uncle Orv might’ve sent me a letter in the past few weeks?”
“No, not that I know of. Why?”
“Ah, it’s not important. I got this unusual letter, and...”
“What? Just now, you mean? Today?”
“Well, he would’ve had to send it over two weeks ago. I know mail’s been slow, but two weeks?”
“Yeah, you’re right. Doesn’t sound likely.”
I spent another five minutes deflecting Lilly’s questions about the letter. When I hung up, it was nine PM. I wolfed down my Chinese, got my shower and hit the rack.
When I put my recycling out the next day, that damn letter was sitting right on top. I don’t know why I picked it up, along with the envelope, and tossed them on a kitchen counter. When I arrived home after 8:30 that night though, I read it again, and I inspected the envelope. Then I reread it almost every day, for the next several weeks. Thought I’d figure out who sent it, but I didn’t, and after Labor Day, I stuck it in the bottom of a desk drawer and forgot about it.
Five weeks later—Saturday, October 10—I got up early. My slack season had started, when I get to do what I really love: ornamental iron. I’m good at it. I keep two large specimens on a concrete slab out near the road, along with a sign and phone number. I get a few custom orders, and I keep an inventory of stock designs to sell to passersby. Makes for a good supplemental income, and having something to do keeps me out of the strip clubs.
I had a quick breakfast and went to my shop. Dad had built the pole-barn some 30 years ago. I insulated it and added heat when I bought the place.
I’d been working three hours when I heard the telltale beeping of a commercial vehicle backing up. By the time I got outside, the Sprinter delivery van had backed up to the sidewalk leading to my front door. As I walked toward it, the driver got out, walked to the back and opened the doors. He was about my age, slim and tall, wearing white uniform pants and shirt, with a logo I couldn’t make out.
“Morning,” he said, turning toward me. He consulted a clipboard and asked, “Are you Mr. Ory Hunter?”
“I am,” I replied. “But I’m not expecting any deliveries.”
He looked at his clipboard again, then at the address on my house, and handed me the clipboard. “This is you, isn’t it?”
I glanced at my name and address. “Well, it is, but...” Then I read the name of the product he wanted to deliver: a Pelton Tread+. A treadmill.
This was connected to the weird letter. Had to be. I’d never figured out where it had come from, but I’d stopped thinking about it. Until now. I handed the clipboard back and said, “Take it away. I don’t want it.” I turned back toward my shop.
The driver was slow to react. “Aw, now, wait a minute,” he said to my back. Then he ran after me and caught up. “Maybe someone else in your house ordered it.”
“I live alone,” I said, and kept walking.
“Look, it’s top of the line, all paid for. Maybe someone bought it for you as a gift.”
“No one I know has that much money,” I said, and kept walking. The driver raced ahead of me, spun around and blocked my path, his hands out in front of him.
I tried walking around him but he sidestepped and started talking fast. “Hey, buddy, help me out here, huh? I don’t deliver this; I don’t get paid. Wife is still out of work cuz-a Covid, and I got two kids at home.” I stopped walking. “Just let me set it up, ok? You don’t want it, you can sell it. Worth five grand.”
He had me. I’d heard way too many sad stories in the past nine months. “Ok,” I said. “Show me what I have to sign and take it with you. You sell it.”
“Aw, don’t I wish. I gotta take five still photos of it set up in your home, and one 30-second action video with all the little lights flashing. Come on man. I’ll even help you carry it back out onto your porch. Make it easy for your buyer to load up.”
“Or I could help you load it.” He didn’t answer right away. I could see him thinking, weighing his options.
“Odds are, they’d find out, and I’d get the boot. Can’t lose this job. Cost me too much finding it.” He pulled out his wallet, opened it and extracted the two bills inside. “I got 21 dollars, yours if you let me set it up for you.”
That did it. His desperation to feed his family trumped my determination to reject whoever was trying to fuck with my physical conditioning. I waved away his money and helped him carry the boxes inside. Told him he could set it up right there by the kitchen door.
“It’ll be in your way, coming and going.”
“Easier to move it out. What’s it matter to you?”
“Doesn’t, I guess. Gotta grab my tools.” He dashed out and back in with a small toolbox. As he began cutting boxes open, I admired the way his tools were organized, and I asked him what he’d done. Before.
“Ouch. Quite a step down.”
“I suppose,” he said, taking a brief pause from unpacking parts. “But the resurgence, if this ever ends, could be epic. With all the early retirements, pent up demand, people with skills could be in high demand again.” A moment later, he said, “So they say.” He smiled then and added, “I guess we’ll know, soon enough.”
I went to my work and left him to his. Two hours later he showed me how the unit worked, and I paid attention so I could explain it to the buyer I hoped to find. It truly was a top-end machine: .5 to 12 mph, 15% incline, shock-absorbing slat-belt, heartrate monitor, 32-inch touchscreen, speakers, Bluetooth, internet library of live and on-demand classes, video running-tours through hundreds of land- and city-scapes.
“Does everything but shoot torpedoes,” I said, as he was packing his tools.
He laughed and said, “Now, classes are through subscription, but this model comes with a year prepaid.” He showed me that feature on his clipboard, then wrinkled his brow and said, “Hm, never saw that before. It says multiyear prepaid. I guess you can keep using it till they cry uncle. Oh,” he added after a moment, “but you’ll be selling it, so...”
I handed him a fifty as he walked out. “Groceries. For the kids,” I said. “No buying a round for the house.”
His face scrunched up. He said, “Got it. Thanks, man,” and left.
Just to prove I didn’t need it, that I could still run as fast as my 18-year-old self despite a few extra pounds, I strapped on a pair of shoes, set the machine to a modest six mph, and hopped on. What a revelation. I was struggling after one minute, wheezing at two. And my knees hurt. I pushed stop, waited for my breathing to settle down, and then stomped out to my shop. I worked until midnight. No beer break, no supper. I ignored the machine as I walked past on my way to the shower. I ignored it for several more days, but the damn thing grew on me.
I moved the machine to my tv room, after I found I could set a running tour on the treadmill’s screen to match the location of a movie on my larger tv on the wall. Glancing down at the treadmill monitor, I slogged up mountains and through jungles as, glancing up at my wall-mounted tv, I searched for gold with Bogie in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Movies became the friend that urged me on and buoyed me up during winter nights that became lonelier as 2020 became 2021 and as I chased an elusive goal that remained forever ahead of me on my endless treadmill track.
A year later I had dropped fifty pounds, cut six inches off the end of my belt and drilled three holes in it where there hadn’t been holes before. I felt better than I had in my entire life, and then a girl walked into it.
Early October 2021, a sunny day, temp in the low 60s, about three pm. Slack season again, so I was in my shop when I realized I’d heard a vehicle running for the last two minutes. I peeked out the shop door. An old Acura was at the end of my gravel driveway. Couldn’t see the owner, because my display pieces are off to the right, in front of the house, where I can’t see them from my shop behind the house. I walked past the house and got a look at my visitor.
Around 35 years old, I thought, maybe five foot seven. Dark complexioned, with longish black hair pinned up carelessly. She wore jeans and a red flannel shirt, long sleeves rolled up to the elbow. She was inspecting one of my pieces from behind it, facing mostly away from me. As I got closer, I realized that with her car running, she wouldn’t hear my footsteps. I opened my mouth to shout hello, so as not to startle her, but she chose that moment to turn toward me, casually, as if she’d known I was there all along.
She had an honest face with a simple beauty, and her eyes...
Isn’t it remarkable how the mind, in but an instant, will occasionally imagine a story so rich with detail and timelessness that it almost seems real? That whimsical part of the mind roams free, conjures and imagines, builds castles in the sky and never acknowledges the hard realities of life on Earth, because the practical mind makes our choices, as mine did now: don’t be carried away by fantasy. Bask in the glow from those eyes for as long as you’re allowed, and don’t say or do anything dopey, so at least when she drives away, she’ll remember you with favor, if she remembers you at all.
“You did this,” she said, not as a question.
“Guilty.” I stopped the requisite six feet away.
She didn’t run away screaming. “These are amazing. I just had to stop for a closer look, but I haven’t a dollar to my name. I’ll be on my way.” Her eyes evinced a reluctance to leave, or so I imagined, and she turned toward her car.
“No hurry. It’s nice to hear a compliment now and then.”
She stopped, turned back and said, “Creative minds need recognition. I’m sure you’ve had plenty though, given the imagination in your work.” She turned again toward her car.
It was nice meeting you, I wanted to say, or, You needn’t leave so soon, but by then she was close to her car and I’d have had to shout to be heard, which would have sounded desperate. Then the engine quit.
“No, no, no,” she pleaded as she ran, jumped in and turned the key. The starter clicked a few times, then nothing. Her head fell to the steering wheel and remained there as I walked toward the car.
When she looked at me, I stopped, ten feet away. She said, “Battery’s shot. Cranks the engine enough to start sometimes, but I always leave it running or park it on a hill. Manual tranny. Pop-starts easy.” She took a deep breath. “Um, do you suppose you could...”
“No problem. Pop the hood and I’ll bring the truck over.”
With my truck battery connected, we got the Acura to crank, but it wouldn’t start. She was still in control though. “I’ll figure out... I just need... Um... I could call...”
“I don’t know much about engines,” I said, “but I have an idea.”
The look she gave me spoke volumes: I’ll listen. But I decide.
“At 5:20 every day, the best mechanic in the county passes by. He’ll know what’s wrong.”
She looked at her watch. “Two hours.” She nodded her head. “Can I wait here?”
“Sure.” I took out my phone and dialed. “Hi Matt. Ory. Can you stop to look at a car stalled in my driveway?” I listened for a moment, and said, “Thanks. Maybe grab your towbar just in case.”
“He’s honest and fair,” I told her. “Customers love him. Look at his reviews while you wait.” I gave her the name of Matt’s shop. “You’re welcome to wait in the house.”
“Thanks. I’ll be fine here. I’ve got a book to read.”
“Suit yourself. I’ll be in my shop.”
I left my truck facing the Acura, both hoods raised, jumper cables in place but disconnected. As I walked away, I tried to come up with an excuse to go back, ask where she was from, where she was going, what she was reading; anything to engage her in conversation. But she was too wary to see it as anything but a come-on, and I was too awkward to disguise it as anything else.
I left my shop when I heard Matt drive in and park beside the Acura. My visitor was leaning back at the driver’s door, and I heard her say, “Thanks so much for stopping, Matt. I’m Sophie.”
“No problem,” Matt said as he walked to the front of the Acura. “What is this? An oh 3?”
“Yep. My dad bought it new. I’ve had it a few months.”
“How many miles?” Sophie told him about 180 thousand, and Mat said, “Well, let me have a look.”
He took a small LED light out of his shirt pocket and began his inspection. I said Hi Matt as I walked up, and he said Hi Ory. He probed with the light and one or both hands at several spots, looked at the date marks on the battery, then hooked the jumper cables up. I started my truck, and Sophie jumped in and turned the key. After two seconds he shouted for her to stop. He crossed to his truck and returned with a small hammer, leaned into the engine and I heard three sharp taps. He told Sophie to try it again and the engine started right up.
Sophie was clapping her hands while Matt listened to and inspected the running engine for ten seconds. Then he told Sophie to shut it down. As Sophie got out of the car, Matt walked around it, stopping at each wheel-well for a peek with his light. He opened the driver’s door and looked inside, then laid on the gravel and looked underneath for a few more seconds.
“Ok,” he said, walking back to the front. “Starter solenoid was stuck. Need a new one, or a new starter. I’ll know when I take it out. You know you need a new battery. Timing belt, can’t be sure until I get the cover off, but I got a hunch it’s overdue. If it is, I gotta replace it. Wait for it to break, engine will stop, it’ll damage the valves, could even cause an accident. All told, you’re probably looking at $1500, maybe high as 18.”
“Usually, a car this age, I’d recommend junking it and looking for a better car. But this is super-clean inside and out. Engine sounds good. I’ll run a couple tests. If it passes, could run another hundred thousand miles. Tires and brakes are good for 20. Struts, tie rod ends and muffler were all replaced recently. Bottom line: put $1500 in, it’ll be worth $3000, and you should be able to drive it a few years. So, your call.”
“The timing belt. I can’t get by without it?”
Matt went above and beyond. Got a toolkit from his truck, and in ten minutes he’d removed and loosened enough bolts from the cover to get a peek at it. He held a light and stepped aside. “Have a look,” he told Sophie.
“Oh, God,” she said when she saw the belt. She straightened and looked at Matt. “How’d you know that?”
Matt smiled. “Way it sounded.”
“Ok. How soon can you work on it?”
“Friday for sure. Maybe Thursday.” Sophie’s face fell.
I said, “Sophie doesn’t live around here. Anyone you can reschedule without ruffling feathers?”
Matt thought for a few seconds, took out his phone and dialed. When his call was answered he said, “Would it matter if I moved your upgrades to Friday?” Three seconds later he said, “Friday it is. Thanks Pete.”
We pushed the Acura around to face the road, and Matt attached his tow bar. Said he’d drag it in with him the next morning. He asked for Sophie’s phone number, said he’d call her with a better estimate when he got it on the hoist. She thanked him heartily for his help and Matt left.
“Ori,” she said, as we watched Matt back out of my driveway. “Short for...?”
“We... don’t know each other well enough for you to know that, yet.”
The rebuff surprised her. She covered it well, but I caught it.
“I’ll um, call a cab, find a motel in town.”
“I’ll give you a ride,” I said, and then stuck my neck out, just a little. “Unless... Do you like beer?”
She looked at her car, then back at me. Once those eyes latched onto mine, it was impossible to look away, or to misread the resolve concentrated there. “It would have to be free. No strings attached.”
“It’s both.” She didn’t blink.
I settled her on the porch, went in the house and came back with two heavy beer glasses and a 16-ounce can, and set everything on the small table between our chairs.
“This isn’t your average beer. You may not like it,” I said, as I popped the top. “But it’s become my favorite, and I insist you try it. It’s called Mexican Honey.” I poured half of the can into each of the glasses, and she picked one up. She took a tentative sip, and then a longer one.
“It’s good. Very good. I’ve never tasted anything like it.”
“Glad you like it. It’s brewed in Minneapolis.”
She gave me a skeptical frown, picked up the empty can and studied it for a few seconds. “Hm. You spoke truth. Indeed Brewery. Imports orange blossom honey from Mexico.” She looked back to me. “So, how long have you been twisting iron?”
“I’ve dabbled since high school, but I didn’t get serious until ten years ago, when my folks retired and I bought the place from them.”
“Scottsdale. So, where you from?”
“East coast,” she said, and after a brief hesitation, added, “Connecticut.”
“What do you do there, if I may ask?”
Her eyes spoke of sadness. “Did. Graphic design. Had my own apartment, a good job, till it hit. The work dried up, and when Mom and Dad...” She blinked away tears.
“Oh, no. I’m so sorry. It took both of them?”
She nodded her head several times, unable to speak. Then, “Mom had had breathing problems for the last few years. She got it first. Dad took care of her till he couldn’t anymore. He drove her to the ER, and they wouldn’t let him in. Three weeks later, she... Dad didn’t want me over, but I went anyway, found him sick too. I tried my best, but I kept thinking his chances were better in a hospital. But it didn’t make any difference. He was more comfortable there. I keep telling myself that. And I said goodbye. Day I dropped him off.”
“Jesus. That’s... I won’t lie. I don’t know how I’d handle something like that.”
“I’m happy you haven’t had to. When it gets that close to you, you start thinking it’ll get everyone.”
It suddenly felt cooler. She looked uncomfortable.
“Listen,” I said. “I threw a pizza in the oven. Be ready in six or eight minutes.” I stood. “Come in the house. Warmer there.
“No strings,” I added, and went in, left the door open.
I was checking the state of the pizza through the oven glass, heard her come in and stop by the door.
“I have one condition,” she said. I stood and asked what.
“Tell me your full name.”
“Easy enough,” I said. “If you promise to tell no one. Ever.”
“Easy enough. So promised.”
“Really? The hunter?”
“My folks were star-gazers. They had the name picked out long before I came along.”
“Interesting. But it’s a great name,” she said, as she closed the door and entered the kitchen. “I don’t know why you’d keep it locked away.”
“You would, if you knew my last name.”
“What’s your last name?”
I stared at the floor, glanced up at her, and gave her a minute to process. Then her eyes opened wide. Made me wish I had more surprises I could spring on her.
“NO! Really?” She leaned back and barked a short laugh, “Ah ha-ha.” Then, “I don’t believe it.”
I pulled my license from my wallet, stepped forward, laid it on the free-standing chopping block separating us. She walked to the other side, leaned in to look, and looked up at me, her eyes impossibly large at this range.
“Hunter. He speaks truth again. But still, not everyone would tumble to it. Wasn’t a problem, was it? In school?”
“Actually, it was. I caught a break though. Fourth grade, we moved here from Minneapolis. New school, I used only my nickname, spelled it o-r-y. It worked.”
“Hm. So everyone knows you as Ory?”
“Legally my driver’s license, social security ID, and passport if I ever get one, have to show my full name. But no one I know ever sees them.”
She smiled, “So, if we became acquainted, I couldn’t call you Orion?”
I opened my mouth to say I’d make an exception for her, but I was interrupted by the stove timer sounding off. “Saved by the bell,” I said. “You may never know.”
She gave me a look that said, We’ll see about that. That’s how I chose to interpret it. I know, I know, I shouldn’t be carried away with flights of fancy. But hey, it was a look, different from other looks I’d caught from her, and therefore significant.
We had our pizza, shared two more beers. I learned she had no friends or family left in Connecticut, no way to earn a living, so she was headed to North Dakota, where lived an aunt and several cousins who had offered to take her in while she got back on her feet. She’d pulled off the interstate for food, got lost trying to find it again. After finally consulting her phone’s GPS, the shortest route back to I-94 took her past my house. She wasn’t dead-broke, but after paying off debts, the sale of her parents’ house hadn’t left her with much. Matt’s repair bill would claim almost twenty percent of her net worth.
I told her I had two spare bedrooms, no strings, and she accepted. Next morning, I was up early, made coffee, took a cup to my shop. I left the door open and got to work. I heard Matt pick up the Acura at 7:30, and about 8:30, Sophie walked in, sipping from the cup I’d left for her on the counter. She asked what I was making, sounded genuinely interested, even knew the names of some of my tools. Matt called her about ten with an estimate of $1611. She gave him the ok, and he told her she could pick the car up between 4:00 and 5:00. After assuring her I didn’t mind at all, she used the shower in the second bathroom. She made us each an omelet at noon, and after cleaning up she came back to the shop, asked if she could watch. That’s the way we spent the rest of the day, not talking much, but it was easy when we did.
Quarter after four, we left for Matt’s shop, where I dropped her off. She thanked me profusely for the help, made some nice comments that would’ve looked good on my resume for the next gal that came around, and I left.
Home at 4:45, I started some pasta sauce. It’s one of the few things I can cook. I use good ingredients, and the kitchen smells great for hours.
Way I figured, she had to drive by again to get on I-94 West. I fantasized that she’d purposely forgot something in the bathroom, so she’d have an excuse to stop again at my house. She’d need that excuse, I thought. Stopping without an excuse would imply she had another motive for stopping, and she wouldn’t do that. Not this woman. She doesn’t give away clues to her feelings, so unless she’d left something behind, she couldn’t stop, even if she wanted to. But if she stopped, I’d fill her with pasta and Mexican Honey, and maybe she’d stay in the spare bedroom one more night, and the next day, perhaps I’d acquire the courage to ask her to stay longer.
I imagined she finished with Matt at 4:45, so I started listening for her car at 5:00. At 5:15 I left my sauce to simmer and stood in my doorway. I imagined her undecided, so she’d pull over a half-mile east, in the breakdown lane just after Lawndale Road, to think for a few minutes. At 5:30 I stirred my sauce, then watched my driveway again. I gave that up at 5:40, but I left the door open and went to start water boiling for the wide, flat noodles I like. That’s when she knocked on my door.
“Come on in,” I called out, and I heard the screen door creak open.
“I couldn’t leave without thanking you again,” she said, walking to her side of the chopping block. “It smells wonderful in here.”
“It’s ready in a few minutes. Stay for dinner?”
“Really, I can’t thank you enough. Matt’s an ace. The car runs like a top.”
“You can thank me by staying for dinner. And splitting another Mexican Honey?”
“I’d love to,” she said, but those eyes conveyed a reminder of her no-strings clause, to which I replied, “Certainly. Always.”
Finished with dinner, I stood to clear plates and started, “You know you can st...”
She interrupted with a raised hand. I sat back down.
“May I ask Ory, were you ever married?” I answered no.
“Some, after high school. Nothing ever got serious.” Her eyes asked why, and I answered, “I was clumsy, dense.”
“You are neither of those things, now.”
I shrugged. “I haven’t changed. I’ve just learned to keep my mouth closed more often.”
She smiled. If only I knew how to make her do that more often.
“Ory, I can’t just jump in. You know that, right?” I nodded. “I have to know it’s going to work before I... I need to know I won’t hurt you, or you me. It has to start as nothing, like one of your iron pieces.”
“I’m... Not sure I follow?”
She stood, arms folded, and started pacing. My heart pounded. Something I’d said to this unapproachable woman had caused her rock-solid mindset to waver. She was opening a door, when all I’d been hoping for was the chance to stare into those eyes one more time, over coffee tomorrow morning.
“Ory, I’d like to stay here, find work, if that’s even possible. I’d like to rent a room from you, at a fair price. I’d help with chores and housecleaning. Share meals, maybe? I’d like to help in your shop, in exchange for teaching me. If I decide to move on, you must accept it, and if you grow weary of me, I’m gone. No regrets. If we become... something more... well, we’ll both see it coming a long way off. We’ll each have plenty of time to bail, if we feel so inclined.”
She sounded a little out of breath when she finished. She asked me what did I think.
“I think,” I said, trying to recall everything she had said, trying to memorize every word so I could replay it over and over, “I think I agree to everything you said, even the parts I didn’t quite understand. How’s $50 a month sound for the room?”
“That was a free one, Ory. The next time you don’t take me seriously, I’ll walk out and drive away.”
“Ok. Ok. Message received. What... What’s a fair price, do you think?”
She took a breath. “500 a month.”
“For that tiny room? Way too high. 300.”
“400, and not a penny more. Final offer.”
She blinked first. “Deal,” she said.
October 2022, twelve months later, we had become not a couple, but a team. We each had our own bed- and bathrooms. The rest of the house, outbuildings and property were common ground. Sophie took to iron work as if she’d been born to it, and she had an eye for proportion and spacing; she rarely measured anything. Before long she could execute stock designs from start to finish herself. She was headed for greatness in the field, I thought, but at about nine months she seemed to plateau at my level. I thought she might be holding back, but that seemed way out of character for her; I didn’t dwell on it. Working together, we doubled my previous output, and I insisted Sophie accept a portion of the earnings. She accepted, but she manipulated her output so earnings never rose above 350 dollars; 50 under room rent. She wouldn’t release that small modicum of control derived from being not in my debt.
She rode with me that first fall, weeding and feeding customer lawns. She pitched in, learned to load, unload and to cinch equipment down right. She learned to drive the plow truck early that winter, and we spelled each other for big storms; sometimes kept the truck moving twenty hours a day.
It wasn’t all work. We couldn’t go out much, what with most of the economy still closed, but we picked out movies to watch together, and we each built challenge courses on the treadmill, trying to design one the other couldn’t complete. We played Yahtzee, Balderdash, and Backgammon, the latter with betting and the doubling cube, using money from an old Monopoly game.
We argued too, now and then, but never over onerous issues, and our arguments ended with one of us saying, Ok, fine, I see your point, or something similar. I thought often of our relationship, and wondered if we were growing any closer to the “something more” she had alluded to a year earlier, but it didn’t matter much to me. I daily thrilled in the depths of those fathomless eyes, though chastely; if never came intimacy greater than this, this would do for the rest of my days.
October 10, just as we were finishing breakfast, Sophie handed me an eight by twelve-inch drawing sheet. It was a pencil-sketched iron sculpture, drawn in 3-D. It was good, visually interesting, and I told her so. I didn’t know what it was. I could almost see a recognizable form. Maybe it was meant to be abstract, but I didn’t tell her that.
“It looks a little top-heavy on this side,” I said, pointing. That should have been obvious to her, so I didn’t feel overly critical in pointing it out.
“I know,” she said. “But it becomes balanced if I attach these two points”— she pointed to two spots on one side of the piece— “to corresponding points on this piece.” She handed me another drawing sheet.
It was another pencil sketch, a little smaller, different in many ways, but similar too. Holding one in each hand, two feet apart, it hit me.
I slowly brought the sketches together. As abstract met abstract, they became...
“A couple! Look! If you attach them,” I looked at Sophie, then back to the drawings. “Did you know...” I looked at her again. Of course, she knew. You don’t create something like this by accident.
“This is incredible, Sophie.”
I moved the drawings apart, captivated by how they each became abstract. Then I moved them together again, and bingo! They were a couple whirling around each other, or, I saw something else...
“Wha... I’m trying to picture this in my mind, Sophie, and it seems as if...”
“Yes,” she said, “as if...”
“It might, from certain angles, look as if the two are... contained in each other, somehow...”
“Aw hell! You’re no fun at all,” she said, throwing both hands in the air. “I was two beats away from springing that on you. How’d you figure that out with one look at a drawing?”
“I... I’m sorry if...
“Don’t be sorry. You see things in your head. I had to draw it out. Here,” she grabbed her sketchbook and slapped it down in front of me, “this is what I think it might look like from different angles.”
She stood behind my chair, placed her right hand on my right shoulder, and reached her left arm over my left shoulder to flip open the sketchbook in front of me. She put her head down next to mine, inches away.
“This is the first piece, east face, and this is how I think the second one, northeast corner, will appear to project through the first.”
“Yeah, I see...”
“And this,” she flipped the page, “is the second piece, west face. See how it might draw the first in at...”
She went on speaking, excited about her work and about sharing it with me. I listened and followed most of it, but part of me focused on the fact that this was the closest we’d ever been.
We’d kept our distance this past year. Other than the occasional elbow bump in the shop, I didn’t touch her, nor she me. She had ordained it so from the beginning, and I knew that any overtures on my part would’ve been adolescently clumsy, so I’d kept the faith. I had resigned myself to accept that “something more” might never be, and now her cheek hovered achingly close to mine and her collarbone pressed against the back of my shoulder. What had changed? Was it my reaction to this sketch? Or had it been changing too gradually for me to notice? She suddenly pulled away and said my name rather loud. Shit. I’d been daydreaming and hadn’t heard her last several sentences. I turned in my chair to face her.
Her arms were folded in front of her and her eyes broadcast hurt, not deep hurt, more like puzzled, uncertain hurt, but that look compelled me to fix whatever I’d done to cause it.
“I... I’m trying to process this. This is epic, Sophie. A genuine break-out design. If we can execute this in-the-round, it goes out front. I’ll sell my display pieces. Then you open your own account, sell your own pieces. Don’t worry,” I said as she opened her mouth to protest, “you’ll pay your share, rent shop space from me, pay your share of supplies and utilities. But your profit should be your own. You’ll outgrow this shop anyway. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s see if we can build this, and go from there.”
She returned to her seat, her eyes softened, the hurt faded. “Ory, I’d really like to work on this together. With you. I’d like to gain together if it works, and lose together if it doesn’t. I’d like our profits commingled.”
I shook my head. “No, Sophie. That’s a really bad idea unless we were...” It shocked me, the word I was about to say.
“Ory, have you ever asked anyone to marry you?”
“No, of course not.”
“If you did, ask someone to marry you, how would you ask, do you think?”
“I, I suppose it would depend on who the someone was.” God! What a lame-ass answer.
“Ok. Me then. If the someone were me?”
I thought briefly, then stepped off the ledge. “Would you marry me, would you be my wife, forever?”
Her eyes glistened. “You realize you didn’t phrase that as an answer to my question, but as an actual question. To me. You know that, right?”
“I know, and the question remains.”
Her lower lids brimmed over, spilled copiously down her cheeks and onto the table. When the lady cried, she cried, but her voice was clear and strong, strangely unaffected.
“I can’t... won’t... commit easily. You know that. And I trust you now. But you must understand that when I commit, it’s with mind, body and soul, and if you should, not that I think you will, but if you should ever betray me, I’ll die. I don’t know how I know that, but I believe it deep in my soul.”
“Betray you. I would die first.”
She straightened in her chair, wiped her eyes with her sleeves, nodded and said, “I will marry you.”
My jaw fell open, I said, “Really?” and then, “When, ah...”
She leaned forward on the table. “We can pre-apply online and schedule our appointment for the license application now. They have openings tomorrow morning in Ridgedale, where we pay the $115 fee, fill out the forms and walk away with the license. No waiting period. Two JPs nearby have openings tomorrow afternoon. We need two witnesses. JP will provide for a fee, unless we bring our own. We can be married tomorrow afternoon, if you want.”
I wanted to say so many things, like You take my breath away Sophie, or, How long have you been planning this, or... Then I said what I should have said without hesitation. “YES. A thousand times yes!”
“If it’s too much at one time, we can wait. I mean, we haven’t even said I love you or anyt...”
“I LOVE YOU! And I don’t need to hear it. I’ve seen it in your eyes, when you didn’t know I was looking.”
“I love you to, Orion Hunter! And really, we can wait awhile if you want. I mean, we’re already doing everything we’d do as a married couple.” After a moment’s pause, she added, “Almost,” with a wide grin and a look from those eyes; the first I’d seen that could be called mischievous.”
“We’re getting married,” I said, “and we should go somewhere, a honeymoon. If we can find a place open, and find a way to get there.”
Some areas of the globe were open. To travel or stay anywhere, you had to prove you were disease-free, but that was possible now with the Corrina Cough Check. Traveling any distance was the problem, with worldwide airlines closed and shuttered. It had been a hard choice, but all the early vaccines had failed to protect longer than about six weeks, and wave after wave of reinfections plagued every attempt to reopen. With one point five million deaths in the first wave, over four million in the second, and the third reaching seven million with no peak in sight, world governments had finally agreed to implement the same protocols at the same time, last January. When the CC-Check came out last July—a thirty-second test that proved 99.9 % accurate in identifying the virus—they started talking about restarting commercial aviation. Thing is, humans had learned to live without flying, at least in the short term, so a restart may take a while.
“I’m on board. But where?” Sophie said.
“Somewhere warm, but it’s so late in the year, we’d have to go all the way to Florida, or Texas.”
“Hm. Listen. Do you really think we’d need to leave our room very often?” She was always one step ahead of me, that gal.
Two days later, Amtrak delivered us to Union Station in Chicago, near Navy Pier, and a cab took us a mile further north to a one bedroom, 16th floor condo on the Lake Michigan waterfront. It was a corner unit with expansive views of the lake and the Chicago skyline. We stayed a week, had groceries delivered, along with a few meals from restaurants that’d managed to remain open through the ordeal. We left the building four times to walk along the lake, and we took selfies of us standing in front of the barricaded Navy Pier.
The reserve Sophie had shown during our one-year courtship, she abandoned that somewhere. She wasn’t lying when she said that when committing, she went in mind, body and soul.
When we returned from Chicago, we started planning Sophie’s design. Five weeks in, November 17, things were looking good. We were in the shop, working, when Sophie set her tools down, took off her apron, and said she had to dash out to a drugstore for a few things. The closest one was twenty minutes away. I heard her car in the drive when she returned, about noon. She didn’t return to the shop, so I walked into the house to see if she had anything planned for lunch.
From the kitchen, I noticed the treadmill screen in the tv room. We often left it on for days at a time, and it would enter screen-saver mode: a few dozen balls from various sports bouncing around the screen. This time, the screen-saver was gone, and the screen was dark except for what looked like a small block of text in the upper left corner. I walked up close to read it:
Multi-year Prepaid Subscription Terminated. B Kuenhold.
Kuenhold. That was the name at the bottom of the weird letter I’d received over two years ago. I had completely forgotten about it until now. The next line was even more puzzling. It read like the start of an internet encyclopedia article:
Leonard O Hunter, b 2023, celebrated for unique insights into... Read more
Even as I read that line, I heard Sophie calling my name from the back of the house. I turned toward her as she came bounding down the hall into the kitchen, all 225 pounds of her.
“You’re not gonna believe this,” she said, her eyes filled with awe and reverence. “I’m pregnant!”
I whipped my head back to the treadmill’s screen and stood flatfooted as the text I’d read moments before faded to black, and the word rebooting appeared. I would have lunged for the escape key, or the power cord, but I knew the effort would be wasted. I turned back to my wife and saw disappointment, overlaid with subtle notes of fear, in those uncommonly expressive eyes.
“I thought you’d be excited,” she said
Would she believe the short story I was about to tell her? I had no proof save for the letter, and I expected to find it had crumbled to dust or simply disappeared in the past two years. I took a deep breath, and stepped off the ledge.
“You see the problem, right?” Sophie said, nearly an hour later.
“Um, kinda?” Not really.
She believed my story, even the part about the weird letter. We looked for it. We found instead, on the bottom of my desk drawer, under a heavy dictionary, a large quantity of dust that could have been a letter, once. What she didn’t believe was the conclusion I drew: that the event mentioned in the letter, the “event still in my future, important to our species,” is the birth of our child.
“It’s our son, not me, who makes a contribution that they, in the future, consider important,” I said.
Sophie rolled her eyes heavenward. “You really need to start reading some sci-fi, Ory. Look, if that letter truly came from the future, do you think our son exists, or does he not exist, in that future?”
“Well, if he does exist,” I said, “there’d be no reason to send the letter. But Leo’s important in the future, so they sent the letter and treadmill so I’d live long enough to father a child. When you announced being with-child just now, that sealed the deal. They canceled the subscription service, cuz they no longer need... Hm... That’s kind of a downer. I’m not needed anymore. Guess I’m free to have my heart attack now.”
“I need you Ory. I always will. But we’re drifting off track. Look at me.” I did.
“Ok. Follow this. Assume you didn’t receive the letter, that we never met, never had children. How would anyone in the future know anything about a son we didn’t have?”
Well, when you put it that way...
“You’re saying...” I looked into her eyes. They were full of logic and probability. She was about to explain away my letter from the future.
“If our son exists in the future, then the future already has him. If he does not exist, the future will never know. You see? Of all the humans who’ve died since our species began, how could anyone in the future know the effect of selecting you among those billions to live a longer life?”
“Hm. I see your point,” I said. “But wait, what if they in the future can see every possible future?”
“Oh, come now. Omniscience?”
“The Omniscient. God. Think of it. If any future already knows all that is possible to know, why would they need us? Or our son?”
Rats. She had me there. She went on to explain the complex sci-fi theories of time travel, and how unlikely it was that anyone or anything could be sent to the past. “Ok, the letter didn’t come from the future? Where then?”
“What’s most likely?” Sophie said. “Knowing what we know right now.”
“Well, it couldn’t be from Uncle Orv. Aunt Lilly wouldn’t have lied.”
“You said Orv was loaded, right?”
“So, his estate, his will, would’ve been handled through an attorney. Orv could’ve left the letter with instructions to mail it in the event of his death. Lilly needn’t have known.”
“Yeah. Sounds just like the sneaky old goat too. Reaching out from the grave like that.” I thought for a few seconds, and then it hit me.
“What about the treadmill?” I said. I looked back into her eyes. I saw doubt creeping in.
“I admit the treadmill’s a problem. It didn’t arrive until a couple months after Orv’s death. His plan would’ve had to be more complicated to explain the treadmill.”
“Lots more. Pick out a machine, leave money to cover the purchase, shipping, assembly.”
“And how would the attorney, or whoever was handling the bequeath, have known whether to buy and ship it?” Sophie said. “Or when?”
“Yeah,” I said. “How would anyone know that the letter alone hadn’t goaded me into a fitness program?”
“Someone would have had to be...”
“...Watching me! Wow!”
“Yes. But it needn’t have been all that sinister. They wait a couple months, then someone, the attorney himself, perhaps, drives up and observes from a distance for a day or two. If you hadn’t lost weight, if you were still eating fast food, working late and had no fitness routine, he activates operation treadmill.”
“Hm. A year later, I’d trimmed down, and you came along.”
“So, that was just coincidence? When you came along? I’m left to believe that the best thing that ever happened or ever will happen to me was an accident?”
She locked her eyes on mine, leaned in so close her lips brushed mine as she spoke. “I’d rather think of it as a lucky twist of fate,” she said. “Wouldn’t you?”
I called every relative, friend or acquaintance, and asked them outright if they might know anything about a hoax letter sent to me a couple years ago. The calls failed to answer any questions, but I had to try.
I tried tracing the treadmill back through the delivery company, the manufacturer, the payment, etc., and found only dead-ends there as well. We left it there: the letter and treadmill came not from the future, but from a mysterious fairy godparent who wished to remain anonymous. That was fine with me. I was ecstatic with the turn my life had taken. I remain convinced Sophie and I would never have met had it not been for the letter and treadmill, but who had sent them lost importance when our son arrived.
I wrote it down, this story, quickly over the next few days, before I began losing track of details and dates. I reproduced the letter, word for word, from memory; I’d read it so many times. I stored the story as a simple word-processor file, until two months after Leo was born, (yes, we named him Leonard; nothing else seemed appropriate) when Sophie talked me into printing it in the form of a book. She said a real book, with a real cover, can be displayed on a shelf. She thought it would last longer that way, with one generation handing it off to the next for decades, perhaps even centuries.
I still harbor an illusion that my letter was sent into the past to find me (I wouldn’t dare tell Sophie). It’s a harmless indulgence. I imagine a time ten or twenty generations hence: we humans have matured, solved our most pressing problems, we’ve developed a working time travel prototype, and we’re about to begin testing. It’s so impossible it’s silly to contemplate.
Unless—and this keeps me awake some nights—unless you, the person reading this in ten or twenty generations, are my descendant. Unless you supervise the prototype.
Unless your name is Bob Kuenhold.
In that case, Bob, I have only this advice: proceed cautiously. What you are playing at sounds dangerous to me. It could ensure either your existence, or your doom.
Orion Hunter, October 15, 2023. END