This quirky homage to Kurt Vonnegut finds our protagonist seemingly moving in and out of time- with his only anchor being the love of his life. Winner of the Writer’s Digest 2018 Stort Story Award for Romance.
It’s always the same. He’s never known anything different.
He understands his name to be Arthur and it’s the only continuity in his life, all else seems to be a study in surrealism. Arthur feels as though he’s in a movie being shot out of sequence, but he also knows that the scenes of this life are as real as the sun itself.
It’s a feeling that began subtly enough.
Arthur is bowling with friends, laughing with them at gutter balls and cheering when one among the foursome rolls a strike. It’s all as real as real can be- the smell and taste of the beer as they sip it from plastic cups, the deadweight of the ball in his hands. Arthur hears the wooden crashing of the pins in his ears, the sweaty touch of the hand he shakes after picking up a difficult spare.
Then, just as suddenly Arthur finds himself at home, knowing in his mind it is two years earlier than the night at the bowling alley. He is gazing out of the kitchen window and admiring the colorful symmetry of the garden as she tends it in their tiny backyard. She looks up from the bright, green, tomato plants to smile at him.
As it progresses, Arthur comes to the realization that there is another continuity within his life. Margaret is always there. When he is with friends, they are together. They go to dinner together, stay in together. Margaret is the smartest, kindest, most beautiful woman he has ever known and the love of his life. Arthur knows that too, deep down inside his soul.
It’s the day they meet. This isn’t a dream, he’s there, in the college bookstore, watching her pick up a novel from the bestseller rack. She’s in a pair of bellbottoms that he can’t help but notice has no back pockets, and a purplish, tie-die t-shirt that goes well with her long, straight, brown hair. Without even seeing her face, Arthur knows he has to make a move.
Arthur strolls up from behind, taking pains to reach over her shoulder and grab a copy of the same book that she has. He can smell her perfume. He is so close that he can feel her start at the sight of his arm but makes sure not to crudely press into her.
“Sorry,” he says casually. She turns to look at him, their faces within inches of each other, close enough to feel her breath. Her eyes meet his. Arthur takes a step sideways, turning to face her. He looks down at the book.
“Slaughterhouse Five. You like Vonnegut? He’s kind of obscure.”
“I read Cat’s Cradle for a class and got hooked on him,” she replies. “He’s far out. This one’s supposed to be even better. Have you read him?”
“No but I like the premise.” Arthur reads from the back cover, “Billy Pilgrim, a man who bounces around, out of sequence with time. Sounds far out, alright. I’ll give it a try and see if it holds my interest.”
He puts out his hand, “I’m Arthur. My friends call me Artie.”
She accepts it, still smiling and looking directly into his eyes, “Margaret. My friends call me Maggie. Sometimes Maggs.”
He keeps her hand in his, just slightly longer than required, meeting her gaze and breaking into a smile of his own, “So, what should I call you?”
She pulls her hand away and back to the book, grasping it with both hands at her waist.
“Let’s begin with Margaret.”
He breaks into a full grin at the rebuff, “Margaret it is. You can begin with Artie. Are you a student here?” he asks, changing the subject.
“Third year, astronomy. One more for my BS, two more for a master’s and then hopefully on to a doctorate. I have a long way to go yet. How ‘bout you, Artie?”
This beauty calling him ‘Artie’ was progress. “Grad student. Engineering.”
She turns and starts walking toward the checkout, “I’m afraid we’re doomed then. You a builder and me with my head in the stars. It’ll never work.”
He follows, matching her gait, “How ‘bout I build you a bridge to the stars?”
Margaret stops in her tracks and laughs. “How about you read that book and at this time one week from now we meet across the street and talk about what we thought of it?”
He looks around the store, thinking he must be getting played for her friends. There is only an old woman, who seems to be watching them. She must have heard the exchange and the challenge. He looks back at Margaret. “No joke?”
“No joke. You’re going to have to do better than a really cool pickup line, Artie. You’re going to have to prove you’ve got a soul as well. And you’re going to have to buy me a coffee.” She looks at her watch. “It’s two o’clock. Same time next week?”
Arthur finds himself standing in a church, looking down the aisle. At the end is Margaret, in a wedding dress. She is on her father’s arm, marching toward him, a nervous smile across her freckled face. Looking at the many other familiar faces staring directly at him from the pews, it comes to him that he has butterflies as well.
Then, she’s standing next to him. Together, they turn to face the pastor.
“Dearly beloved…” he begins. The rest is a blur until the reverend intones, “You may kiss the bride.” They lean forward slowly, eyes closed in synchronicity, and he feels her warm, moist lips press against his, the way they had thousands of times before. Except this one is special…
“When are you gonna make an honest man out of him, Maggie?”
He opens his eyes. They are sitting in a booth at Costello’s, across from Rich and Laura. Half-eaten cheeseburger platters and Cokes are on the table before them. Margaret is next to him, leaning forward and sipping her soda through a straw, her hand in his beneath the tabletop. Rich is grinning from ear to ear and Laura giggles and presses closer to her boyfriend.
This isn’t right… I just got married. This happened a year earlier, he thinks to himself. Arthur has to tell them all that something is wrong, that he’s already been here in his timeline.
“When I get that job at Hampstead,” he hears himself say. “Then she’s in trouble!”
No! He screams inside himself. Tell them! Tell her! We’ve done this!
The group laughs together. Margaret leans over to kiss him on the cheek.
What the hell is going on? He asks himself. Could I be slipping in and out of time like Billy Pilgrim?
Arthur opens his eyes. He is in bed. Margaret’s head is laying on his chest. The window is open, revealing the light of a new, summer morning entering the room. The warmth of her body contrasts pleasantly with the coolness of the mattress and sheets. She is looking up at him, a slight smile crosses her face. Her left-hand rests on his chest, stroking it lightly.
“What time is it? Am I late?” he asks, knowing full well he isn’t.
“Not at all, my love. You can get up and get ready. I’ll make some breakfast.”
He props up onto his side, Margaret’s head slips off his chest, the nape of her neck nests into the crook of his arm. She’s looking up at him. In his mind Arthur is startled for a brief second- out of the corner of his eye he thinks he sees an old woman standing in the room, watching them. Then, the vision passes. Arthur tries to tell Margaret.
“You know, we could just have coffee this morning,” he hears himself say. Then they kiss.
“It’s not right! You’re too old,” she yells at him. They’re standing in the tiny living-room of their apartment. Margaret is crying. Arthur is holding a piece of paper in his hand, a Selective Service notice. His lot has come up.
“They have been taking older and older draftees over the past year. My deferment ended with college. We knew this could happen,” he says to her.
“No!” Margaret runs into his arms. “We can go to Canada.”
Arthur gently pushes her back, grasping her by the shoulders, and looks her in the eye.
“Are we going to spend the rest of our lives running? Are we going to leave our friends and our families forever? I can’t do that to you, to either of us.”
“I can. I’ll do anything to keep you safe. I would kill for you, Arthur. I’d die for you.”
“Margaret, I’m an engineer. I’m going to be assigned as an engineer. I’m probably going to spend the next two years stateside, dredging rivers. Everything’s going to be fine.”
“Go and get some fresh Italian bread. Tonight, I’m making us lasagna!” she says with a flourish. They’re at the supermarket, he’s pushing the cart behind her as she gathers items and places them into the basket.
“Ooh! A foreign dish!” jests Arthur playfully. “Should I take the cart with me?”
“No, I’ve got it,” says Margaret casually. She changes to the dramatic, pointing at him and then to the bread aisle. “Go! Now!”
Arthur crosses the store and enters the aisle. A strangely-dressed, old woman is there, looking at him. He has seen her before. A sense of déjà vu eats at him; that he’s done this more than once- and that she’s always been here.
For the first time in the dozens of times he has been in this moment, Arthur doesn’t pick up the bread. Instead, he turns to the old woman.
“It’s you!” he says to her angrily. “You’re always here, in the background. You’re the one messing up my life. You keep pulling me in and out of time.”
“Just who the hell are you?”
He’s back in their bedroom. Everything is tidy and made up, just the way they would have prepared it before he left for work, she for classes.
“Hello, my love,” comes a familiar voice from behind him. It’s Margaret.
Except that it isn’t. He turns to her and finds instead the old woman. She is smiling at him, her eyes moist.
“Who are you? Why are you doing this to me?” he asks, this time less brusque.
“Don’t you know? Look closely, Artie.”
He’s perplexed. “How do you know my name? I want you to stop taking me in and out of my timeline. I want you to leave me alone and let me live a normal life.”
The old woman begins to cry softly.
“I’m afraid that isn’t possible, my dear husband.”
“Margaret? It can’t be! You… you’re young, younger than me.” He turns to see his reflection in the dresser mirror. “Look at me. You can’t be old- if I’m not old.”
“You’ll never be old, Artie. You’ve been the same age for all these years. As I’ve grown frailer, you’ve remained the same as always,” she says gently.
He looks at her nervously. “I don’t understand. Why are you getting old while I stay young?”
“Because you never got the chance to grow old. You’ve been gone a long… a very long time. You died in the war, Artie, one of the last to die before it ended. It wasn’t fair. They took you from me and killed you, for nothing.”
Arthur stays silent for a moment, looking at her, then back at the mirror. He touches his face. “I’m dead? I don’t feel dead. I feel fine, and I’m solid as a rock. This room is real, I can touch the walls and the furniture and they’re as solid as I am. You look real enough.
“Are you telling me I’m a ghost?”
She holds her arms out to him. “Not a ghost, no.”
Arthur shrinks back. “I don’t get it. If you’re telling me I’m dead and I’m not a ghost, then what am I? What’s all this?”
“You’re a memory.”
“A memory my dearest love, of our life together. Of the time that I had with you,” replies the old woman.
“That can’t be. There should be more then. There should be more to you than just us.”
Margaret smiles at him, “There is. After I lost you I remarried, to a very nice man. We had a family and a good life. He treated me well and I was grateful… but it didn’t matter. There was only one man whom I could ever really love. Artie, you always owned my soul.
“In quiet places, I could give my heart to you again, go back in my mind to the happiest moments of my life, when you were here.”
It becomes clearer, begins to make sense. He can’t remember a time before her, nor a moment after his departure to Vietnam. The jumping from scene to scene, out of order, nothing seeming to be right, living the same moments again and again.
A thought comes to him.
“Margaret, I’ve never been able to break out of the memory I was living. No matter how much I tried, I have always had to say and do the same things over and over… until this moment.
“Why is it I can talk to you now?”
“Because my time is at hand, Artie. I’m dying,” she replies in a fading voice. “You’re the one I want to share my final moment with. I wanted you to know. You’re no longer what was but what I imagine you to be.”
He grows fearful. “Margaret, if I have lived all this time only in your memories, what will happen to me when you die? What will happen to us?”
Before Arthur’s eyes, she is young again. The woman he has loved and shared the best moments in his time with. She comes to him and glides into his embrace, looking up at him with sad, hopeful eyes.
“I don’t know, Artie.”
He feels her warmth and love for him and is no longer afraid. Arthur knows that this is the most important moment of his long-vanished existence. He holds Margaret tightly.
“Let’s find out together.”
They kiss into the nothingness.