Authors: Gene Doucette
“I’ll think about it.”
“Good.” She smiled. Standing up, she slipped out of her jacket and proceeded to unbutton her blouse. “Bedroom where it always was?” she asked.
Six years past
Professor Archibald Calvin sat on the bed and watched the second hand on the wall clock. The clock itself was nothing spectacular, just something Veronica had picked up at some department store back when they were looking for furnishings that met the standards for function and need of a limited budget. That was a long time ago. A very long time ago, now that he thought of it—more than twenty years, surely. The store where she bought the clock had been absorbed by another chain, which was, in turn, absorbed by a second chain, which then went bankrupt and sold all of its locations to yet another chain. But the clock still worked fine. Just needed batteries every now and then.
There were two types of second hands. One kind, which Archie was not fond of, jumped from second to second in quick spurts, ignoring the intervening space with impunity like an electron quantum leaping to a higher shell. Time, for that type of clock, was a sudden and unexpected event. One could get caught up watching such a second hand and worrying that perhaps the next tick will go in another direction entirely; it was unsettling. The sort of clock he liked—and what he was looking at—had a second hand that moved continuously through its periods, neither knowing nor particularly caring about the equidistant markings carved along its path.
It was reassuring, the second hand. Always on the move but always in a circle, renewing itself each minute. This was an ancient conception of time, where the ending was also the beginning and predestination meant never having to say you were sorry. Archie didn’t know when mankind got over that idea but wondered, not for the first time, if the circular motion of clocks wasn’t a self-conscious nod to that philosophical tradition.
More likely, it was the only practical way to make a clock.
“Archie, are you coming down?” Veronica shouted from the lower landing. She sounded put out, but that probably had more to do with the caterer than with him. They’d been married for thirty-six years, which was long enough for him to figure out when he was the one being yelled at.
“Be right there,” he responded.
“Well hurry up. They’ll be arriving soon.”
He sighed mightily and tore his gaze away from the second hand and back to the mirror. There, staring right at him, was the arrow of time in its unkindest form, for he had gotten old. There was no telling precisely when it had happened because he’d been too busy moving to take note of the equidistant markings carved in his path. But yes, old. His hair was gray and receding so quickly one would think it was fleeing a minor conflagration. The skin on his face had spent so many years fighting the pull of gravity it had acquired wrinkles from the effort. The frame that had always been so thin no matter how much he ate was now hidden under two or three extra layers of professor, said layers appearing to have been added slapdash late at night by a blind mason.
With another mighty sigh he got to work on his Windsor knot. Tenure meant never having to tie another tie in his life, theoretically, but there were the special occasions, and the annual post-graduation garden party was one such occasion. They’d been doing it for seven years, and it was one of the few things relating to the scholastic calendar that Veronica thoroughly enjoyed, even though Archie would have happily aborted it after the first year before it matured into a tradition.
It took him a full ten minutes to bring order to his chaotic necktie, and then he was down the stairs. Veronica, as always, was at her pre-party finest.
“No! It doesn’t go there! Are you
“Dear . . .”
“We need people to be able to pass freely through this point, do you see?”
“Dear . . .”
“Oh, Archie! Thank God you’re here. Tell them where the tables go in back before something horrible happens.”
He put his hands on her shoulders, which was where her brake pedal usually could be found. “I’m sure they know what they’re doing, Ronnie,” he said, while the woman in front of his wife quietly scurried off with a small table that would have to serve a purpose elsewhere in the house.
Veronica sighed under his ministrations. “It was so much easier when Eric was catering,” she said.
Archie did not point out that his wife was no less impossible to deal with now than she had been when Eric Harriman’s catering business was still operational. “You look nice,” he said instead, which was just the thirty-six years of experience talking. Not that she didn’t look nice. She had on a smart lavender skirt suit with a low-cut white shell beneath, her neck adorned by a pearl necklace. It was a message outfit. It said, “My husband may be important, but I’m still in charge.”
He found she had a tendency to dress more businesslike since retiring from her administrative duties than she ever did when she was still working at the university. The small part of his brain that devoted itself to socialization took note, and decided to bring it up sometime. Possibly, his wife was having trouble adjusting.
“Thank you,” she answered, turning to look at him. “You look as if you dressed in heavy winds.”
“I have a tie,” he pointed out helpfully.
“That you do,” she agreed, even as she adjusted it so that it no longer pointed toward magnetic north. “Now see about the tables in back. You remember how they were last year?”
“They were fine last year.”
“Yes. Make sure they’re set up the same. I have to go find that girl and make sure she positions the drink table with some semblance of rational thought.”
* * *
An hour later, Veronica Stanford-Calvin’s head had not yet spun completely off, which Archie considered a sure sign that the party was going well. He was standing to one side in his garden, which was no more a garden than was the lawn at Fenway Park, but it was what one called it when one installed things such as trestles, stone paths, and what-have-you. Most of the Truly Important had already arrived, including the president of the university, who was currently standing directly in front of Archie and engaging him in conversation. He was telling some sort of joke.
“So I said, ‘How do you
it’s cheese when you haven’t even tried it yet!’ ”
Having gone utterly adrift in the middle of this story, Archie could only rely upon unspoken indicators, and those indicators suggested this was time to laugh. So he did. The president joined in, which Archie took to be a good sign.
“Anyway,” he said. “Tell me, what are you up to nowadays?”
“Ah! Well, our department—”
“No, no, no. Not the department. You.”
Archie smiled. Despite being at his core a man of politics, the president of MIT still took himself to be something of a scientist, or at least a man whose interest lay in the sciences, even if his talents did not.
“I have been thinking a lot about time,” Archie said. This was not the sort of thing one casually admitted to. Fully three-quarters of the university’s Physics Department was working on various renditions of the beast known collectively as string theory and other Grand Unified Theory variants. Archie was no less interested in this pursuit, provided it didn’t end up trampling all over the Standard Model, which he was always rather fond of. The problem was, when it came to superstrings, branes, and so on he often felt as if he had little left to contribute. These were things for younger, nimbler minds—minds that weren’t fighting the urge to declare the entire enterprise specious, as his mind so often was. But time? That was something he always enjoyed thinking about, and almost nobody else was.
“Time, you say?” the president replied, attempting to look intrigued.
“You’ve heard Hawking’s thoughts on it, I trust.”
The briefest look of panic suggested that no, he had not heard anything of Hawking’s thoughts on it. Archie optimistically assumed the president at least knew who Stephen Hawking
“He asked the question: why do we see time in one direction, but not the other direction?” Archie explained.
“Ah. Um . . .”
“You see, the obvious answer is, because one cannot see something that hasn’t happened yet, which is certainly a decent response from a philosophical standpoint, but in many ways either direction is just as good.”
“Well,” the president responded, trying to catch his footing now that he’d gone and awakened the science geek inside his host, “that’s preposterous. If I were to drop this glass, not only would I spill this really excellent scotch, I’d likely break the glass. If time could flow in either direction equally effectively, then the glass might reassemble itself.”
“So have I solved your puzzle?” he asked.
“No, not at all. But you have raised a much deeper question regarding the second law.”
“Yes. The natural course of events in this universe is for order to move toward disorder in the same direction as the arrow of time. Now, does the arrow of time point in that direction because that is the same direction in which entropy flows, or do we see entropy because we can only view time in one direction?”
The president smiled in such a way as to suggest he was either lost or unwilling to take this any further. “I’m sticking with my first answer,” he said.
“That’s probably for the best.”
“Ah! There’s Michael.” He put his hand on Archie’s shoulder. “Fantastic gathering, as always. Do come out of the corner for a while, would you? For your wife’s sake?”
Archie faltered. “She didn’t . . . send you over here, did she?”
“Of course she did. Now mingle.”
As the president went off to greet Michael Offey, Archie scanned the growing crowd for someone with whom he could successfully mingle. He did know most of his guests well from a professional standpoint, so there was little need for extensive introductions. It was the small talk that always ended up being a problem. He simply didn’t have a vast pool of minor subjects to draw from.
There was one man he did not know. He noticed him standing in the opposite corner of the garden. Dressed casually in jeans and a brown sweater that only adequately covered a white T-shirt, he didn’t seem to fit in with the tastefully appointed crowd or with the uniformed catering crew. Archie scanned his memories for some sort of template upon which to place him, but found he didn’t fit anywhere within his circle of associates. Perhaps he was a driver for the catering truck.
As the host, Archie was fairly sure he was supposed to do something about the stranger. Ask him his business, perhaps. Politely. He was, after all, a very large person—cheerful in expression, but large. So he began elbowing his way through the center, a path that would take him past the catering table. In hindsight, this was not the most intelligent route, direct only in the geographical sense.
“Professor Calvin!” someone exclaimed. He turned. It was Hanna Lu, Professor Lu’s wife. She had planted herself firmly at the center of the buffet table and was guarding the territory with the same conviction as a lioness before a fresh kill.
“Hanna!” He smiled, a learned response transmitted in emergency form from the socialization sector. “How are you?” he asked, kissing her on the cheek.
“This food is wonderful!” she exclaimed. “Have you even tried any of it yet?”
“Not yet.” He tended not to do much eating or drinking at these events until after the bulk of the guests had departed. He had plenty of time to do so, but since Veronica was busily hostessing her way about the place—and not eating—he felt some need to starve out of solidarity with her.
“Try this,” Hanna said, holding out a cracker with some manner of brownish substance smeared upon it. “It’s delicious.”
He took the cracker and was about to pop it into his mouth when a voice he didn’t recognize said insistently from behind him, “Don’t.”
“Excuse me?” he said, turning. It was the strange man in the sweater.
He stared at Archie for a few seconds without responding, which was just long enough to make things very uncomfortable. Finally, he said, “You have food allergies.”
“Eh, yes, yes . . . how do . . .” he looked down at the cracker. “Hanna, you wouldn’t happen to know what’s in this dip?”
Hanna stood there, mouth open and mute, so the tall man took the cracker from Archie’s fingers and slipped it into his own mouth. He chewed appreciatively for a few seconds. Archie just stared, wondering why it was he found the chewing so fascinating. He could feel his own second hand slowing down.
“Peanuts,” the man said finally. “Just a trace.”
“Archie?” Veronica called. She had wandered over to the scene looking concerned. “Do you know this . . .” Her hostess light flared on suddenly, and she turned to her large guest. “Hello, I’m Mrs. Stanford-Calvin. And you are?”
“Ronnie,” Archie interrupted. “There are nuts in the dip.”
“Oh! Oh my God!” Veronica shed the happy hostess role immediately and turned into worried wife. “How do you feel? Should I call the—”
“I’m fine,” he said while she busied herself with putting her hands all over his face and neck to check for swelling. Which was unnecessary because it was obvious he hadn’t eaten any of it. If he had, he’d be on the ground and dying or dead already.
The scattered guests in the garden pressed toward the buffet table almost instinctively at the noise Veronica was making, two dozen PhDs waiting for someone to ask if there was a doctor in the house. “I’m all right,” Archie insisted again. “This . . . gentleman stopped me before . . .” But the man was gone.
the caterer.” Veronica was half-shouting as she made a new transformation into righteously angry woman. “I told them not to—”
“Ronnie, I’m . . . excuse me for a moment.”
He pushed his way through the gathering and caught a look at the man, who was now walking calmly toward the street, having elected to take the most direct route along the side of the house rather than through it. Archie squeezed around the bush that defined the garden area and straight through the begonia patch to catch up to him.