Monday, June 11, 2007

A Day In the Life of Lonny McPherson

-i-

Lonny McPherson was sitting on a bench by the merry-go-round, watching his grandson go…well…go round and round.

Come to think of it, life was like a merry-go-round, he said to himself. The riders had their ups and downs. New riders took the place of old riders, but the merry-go-round kept going around.

Life on earth was one big merry-go-round. One generation cycling in as another generation was cycling out. The riders changed, but the merry-go-round remained the same. Same speed. Same direction.

Yes, life was like that. As if someone designed the merry-go-round, assembled the merry-go-round, plugged it in, switched in on, and then left it on. Forgot to turn it off. Drove away, never to return.

And the music, too. Yes, the music. The same tune played over and over again.

Indeed, there were many different tunes all playing at the very same time in the amusement park. Lights and motion and music in a constant swirl—going nowhere.

It wasn’t music you were meant to hear, exactly—much less listen to. It was meant to drown out the silence, or the screaming and shouting, or the mechanical racket.

A grandson! Where had all the years gone!

And this was probably the last time that Lonny would ever take his grandson to the amusement park.

Lonny had become a bit forgetful of late. His friends and family began to notice. They took him to the doctor. Sure enough, he was in the early stages of senile dementia.

Lonny could still take care of himself. Still get around pretty well. Some days were better than others.

But in a matter of months, he would be moving into a nursing home. And in a few more months, he would be beyond good and evil.

So he wanted to take his grandson on one last outing. Once last thing for his grandson to remember him by.

But the repetitious music and the repetitious motion made him a bit drowsy. He ought to keep his eye on that bobbing horse where his grandson was seated, but he kept nodding off.

-ii-

Next thing he knew, the amusement park was deserted. The merry-go-round, rollercoaster, and Ferris wheel were solitary, silent, and motionless. Maybe he was seeing things.

Then somebody spoke to him. He couldn’t quite make out the man’s appearance, for he stood in the shade at a distance from Lonny. Maybe he was hearing things. Auditions and hallucinations.

“Who are you?” Lonny asked?

“I go by many names,” the shadowy figure said. “Tenebrifer, Cocornifer, Hörnli, Hellhundt...”

“What do you want,” Lonny asked?

“A better question is, “what do you want? If you could relive one day of your life, what day would it be?”

Now that wasn’t an easy question for Lonny to answer. So many days to choose from.

Of course, every man was nostalgic about his youth. So it would have to be back when he was a teen or twenty-something.

He had a happy childhood, but he wouldn’t want to be a kid again. Or adolescent.

And, of course, every man was nostalgic about high school. Nothing quite like high school football. The intensity. The competition. The camaraderie. The cheerleaders.

He also enjoyed college. But he and his frat brothers drifted apart after graduation.

Just like high school graduation. The big build up to the Prom. Classmates scribbling sentiments of eternal friendship in one another’s yearbook.

And yet, after the dance music ended, and they returned their tuxedoes, they went their separate ways.

At first a few lunches and phone calls and greeting cards. But after a while, silence.

And, of course, every man is nostalgic about summer break. All those long, hot, carefree summers when school was out. If he had just one day to relive, it would have to be a summer day.

Sorry to be so predictable and cliché-ridden. But Lonny never aspired to be original.

Mind you, it’s not as if life came to an end when he left college, and married, and had a career, and kids, and a three-car garage.

But, somehow, he wasn’t as wistful about all that. For one thing, you can only come of age just once, once in a life time. Once you grow up, there’s a sameness to it all. You’re always an adult.

Mind you, there’s something special about being a father for the first time. But once you’ve raised one kid, there’s such a sameness to it all. Once a dad, always a dad.

For another thing, the thing about the past is that it’s…you know…past. You can’t go back. Even if you can go back in space, you can’t go back in time.

People are gone. Places are gone. Even pets are gone.

He still missed his dog. The dog he had as a boy.

Seems silly. Surely he should have outgrown that by now. Surely he would have outgrown it by now.

But he hadn’t. He didn’t. The sense of loss was still there, after all these years. Decades, really.

Was it just the dog, or the time of life?

And, of course, his grandparents were gone. His parents were gone. His aunts and uncles.

Certain people are irreplaceable. There are compensations. A wife and kids compensate for the loss of one’s parents and grandparents. But they can’t replace them—just as parents are no substitute for your own wife and kids.

Or the ex-wife—in his case.

Time was gaining on him. The losses were stacking up.

When he was young, he had a head start. Time was out of sight.

Then, as he got older, it popped up on the horizon. But far away. Just a speck in the distance.

But as he got even older, he felt like he was being tailgated. He tried to look ahead, keep his eyes on the road—but there was that grim reaper in the rear view mirror. Bearing down. Filling the rear view mirror. Beginning to pass.

He tried to outrun it. Floor the accelerator. But it was moving alongside. Slightly ahead.

It’s as if the odometer was running backwards. Instead of starting at zero and running into eternity, it’s as if the odometer was set at 100,000 miles, and running down to zero.

Instead of a ruler-straight road with no end in sight, like Nebraska or the Dakotas, the horizon seemed to curve up and around, like a concrete wall.

He wanted to turn around, but the backstretch was disappearing beneath him. He wanted to stop, but the accelerator was frozen in place. He wanted to slam on the brakes, but the fluid was gone. He was pumping air. He wanted to jump from the car, but the doors were locked.

So there he was, hurtling towards a concrete wall. With the grim reaper overtaking him.

Or so it seemed. More than ever.

Hellhundt was tapping his foot, impatiently. Lonny couldn’t think of just one day that had it all. One day with everyone and everything he ever cared about in one place and time.

So he’d have to compromise. Settled for one day that offered the most.

Maybe, if he scheduled things very carefully, he could meet most everyone he wanted to see again.

Maybe, if he chose a central location, he could drive most everywhere he wanted to go.

He settled on a summer day between his senior year in high school and his freshman year in college.

That summer he divided his time between his high school buddies, his high school sweetheart, and the frat brothers he befriended before the fall term began. Back when he was still living at home.

There’s a sense in which he could go backward in time, but never ahead. If he went back to high school, his frat brothers wouldn’t know him—but if he went back to college, his high school buddies would still know him.

Actually, he and his best friend from high school were also in the same fraternity. But that was when they began to drift apart.

When Lonny made new friends, he neglected his old friends. In hindsight, this was a mistake—because he lost both sets of friends. The old friends were offended that he dumped them for new friends. And he lost track of his new friends after college, when they moved away, and began a family of their own. Lonny was hoping that he would patch things up. Mend a few fences.

After Lonny and Hellhundt agreed on a day, Hellhundt disappeared. At first, nothing happened. He wandered around the deserted amusement park until he got hot and thirsty and tired. So he sat down again and took a nap.

-iii-

When he woke up, he was back in bed. Indeed, back in his old bedroom. It was a lovely summer morning.

He went to the bathroom and peered in the mirror. He hadn’t looked like that since high school.

He dressed and went downstairs for breakfast. His parents were there. He glanced at the newspaper. The date was the day that he and Hellhundt had agreed upon.

His mother began to make small talk and offered to prepare breakfast for him.

Now he was torn. There was so much to do, and just twenty-four hours to squeeze it all in. So he was in a hurry. A big hurry.

And yet, he hadn’t seen them for twenty years. And the last time he saw them alive, they were dying of old age. But here they were again.

How could he tear himself away? It was almost worse to see them just one more time, and lose them both a second time.

That’s how his entire day went. Torn between the need to rush and the longing to linger.

He was overwhelmed. The sense of separation was doubled, redoubled, tripled, quadrupled.

Before then, he had been able to pace his grief. People came and went at unexpected times, but it was spaced out over several years. But now it was as if everyone he ever cared about died all at once, on the very same day.

He had just enough time to renew his old feelings before the guillotine came down and swept them all away in one clean stroke.

-iv-

He went to bed, emotionally exhausted, and woke up the next day in the very same bed.

This took him by surprise. For that wasn’t a part of the original bargain. He was expecting to open his eyes and find himself seated at the amusement park, with his grandson on the merry-go-round.

Not that this turn of events was at odds with the deal he stuck. Indeed, it occurred to him that he hadn’t bothered to hammer out his bargain in any detail. Hadn’t asked Hellhundt any number of obvious questions—questions that were only now occurring to him.

How could he be so careless and impetuous? How could he agree to the offer without negotiating the finer points? Without reading the fine print?

Not that Lonny was necessarily disappointed by this outcome. He didn’t know quite what to make of it.

Was he going to repeat the same day ad infinitum? That could become awfully tedious.

On the other hand, this seemed to be a boon. Presumably he could take his time. He didn’t have to cram everything into just one day. If the same day kept repeating itself, then he could spread out his itinerary. Do one thing one day, and something else the next day—even though the next day was really the same day all over again.

A little confusing, I know. Every day was the day before as well as the day after. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow were the same day iterated until...until...there was no until. Unless there was. Who could say?

His first experiment was to go with the flow. Do as little as possible to alter the past—or, should I say, alter the present? Confusing, I know.

Not that he remembered how everything originally happened on that particular day. So maybe he would change it by doing as little as possible to change it. Confusing, I know.

But he tried to introduce as little dislocation as he could into the rhythm of things. Avoid interrupting the flow by responding to his parents rather than making some bold suggestion.

-v-

The next morning, he woke up in the same bed, on the say day.

Apparently, it was safe for him to change the routine as much as he wanted to, since the next day would always default to the original day. He could change the present, but not the future.

So he seized the opportunity to spend the entire day with one person at a time. Or go one place for the whole day.

At first this seemed like a wonderful chance to get better acquainted. Life is such a paradox. You only think to ask certain things after it’s too late to ask certain things.

It’s only after the opportunity is long gone that you’re aware of the lost opportunity, at which point you can no longer make up for the lost opportunity.

You have no sense of loss until you lose something. As long as you have it, you never miss it. So, in a way, you don’t know what you’re missing. You take it for granted.

Only after it’s gone beyond recall do you wish you’d said something else, done something else.

But now he was able to make up for lost time. Or was he?

The problem is that while he remembered what he learned from one day to the next, no one else did. They reverted to the same day. Their memories were frozen in the past.

So he could learn more and more about them, but they could never learn anything new about him. In a sense, then, he still had to jam everything into one day.

They could learn something new for that one day. But as soon as that day was over and done with, their memory was reset to their old memories.

This was deeply disappointing. There was a girl in high school he always wanted to know better. Always regretted that he didn’t get to know her better when he had the chance.

And now he hand the chance. Except that it only worked one way. He could find out more about her, but she might as well have senile dementia.

Now matter how much time they spent together the day before, the next day he was practically a stranger to her. He could never win her trust, must less her love.

There were only so many things she’d do with a boy she hardly knew. Even coaxing her to have lunch at the local cafe was a major achievement.

In the end, he gave up. In the end, he allowed that part of the program to lapse back into the default setting.

-vi-

At first, Lonny didn’t drive any further than he could travel in a round trip the same day. But then he began to experiment.

Suppose he didn’t make it back to his rendezvous point within twenty-four hours? Would he break the cycle? And if he did, what would happen?

Maybe this was dangerous. Maybe he would die if he traveled beyond the distance he could cover and backtrack in one day. Or maybe, just maybe, if he was caught one-foot outsider the spatiotemporal perimeter of his twenty-four hour ambit, he would wake up at the amusement park.

But he was bored. Bored to tears. Bored to death. The risk was worth it.

So he drove twenty-four hours straight. At first, nothing seemed to happen.

He kept driving past the twenty-four hour limit. Just to make sure.

The sun went down. The sun came up. And he kept on driving until he was too tired to drive any longer. Until he was falling asleep at the wheel.

And, indeed, nothing did happen. He parked his care at a cafe, and went inside. The date on the newspaper was—you got it!—the very same day.

So he was limited in time, but not in space. He could traverse the world. Circumnavigate the globe.

For a moment, he thought this would be cruel to his parents. They would wonder what became of him. There they’d get up, as usual, and he’d be gone!

But, of course, it then occurred to him that they wouldn’t remember his absence from one day to the next. If he were absent for just a day, which is all they’d remember, then they’d be curious, or at most concerned—but hardly distraught. It’s not as if they’d nail a missing person’s poster on every telephone pole up and down the block.

At least, he assumed that his absence would have that effect. That for every day he was gone, that part of the program would be missing—unless and until he came back home.

But then a more sinister thought occurred to him. So there was no spatial barrier to the twenty-four hour cycle. But there was a temporal barrier.

So suppose he was absent in space, but not in time? Suppose he was still at home?

In other words, what if that part of the program also reset while he was away. Perhaps he had a doppelgänger taking his place. And if he returned, he would merge with his doppelgänger?

Maybe no one would notice his absence because the program would continue running in spite of him. Continue running the “Lonny” part of the program.

What did it really mean to be “away” in this repeating timeloop? How could you be “away” from a closed, causal timewarp or timeloop—or whatever you call it?

He found this thought rather smothering, but he could do nothing to either prove it or disprove it.

-vii-

In the meantime, he went exploring. It was easy to lose track of time, for every day was the same day. He had no idea how many days had passed from one day to the next. For it was just one nonstop day. A run-on day, punctuated by “day” and “night,” dawn and dusk, but curling in on itself.

And yet, for a long time, he was able to fill the time. To go hiking. See all the great museums and cathedrals. Devour libraries. Visit every exotic, inaccessible corner of the world

Not that he did it all at once. He would fly back home from time to time. And, of course, everything was just the same. The same day, on that summer break between high school and college. Mom making the same breakfast, dad reading the same newspaper. The radio blaring the same music.

You might be wondering what he did for money. Well, it didn’t take him long to figure out that since nothing he did had any long-term consequences, he could act with impunity.

He could rob a bank and, the next day, all the money would be back in place. He could steal a Ferrari and, the next day, the Ferrari would be back in the parking lot. He could stay at the Ritz for ten years for the price of one day.

In principle, he could become a serial killer for all the difference that would make. Not that he had any inclination to become a serial killer.

Whatever he did, the next day would wipe the slate clean. Reposition the players on the chessboard.

At one level, this was extremely convenient. Nothing he did ever left an indelible mark. Not even a scratch. Every action was erasable.

No cost or consequence. Had he been able to push a little red bottom and watch the whole world go up in smoke, the mushroom cloud would dissipate, with fair skies the day after—along with city and town, tree, flower, and teddy bear intact.

But then there was the downside of permanent impermanency. He could never have a wife or child—or even a girlfriend.

It’s as if the whole world were in motion while he was standing in place. Or else the whole world was standing in place while he was in motion.

He would come back home every now and then—a walking encyclopedia and polyglot lexicon—but he couldn’t share his experience with anyone else.

For a time he contemplated suicide. But that’s before he was shot to death in a bank heist. Only to open his eyes the very next moment, and look over at his alarm clock. Same bed. Same bedroom. Same wallpaper. Same posters. Same fragrance from the kitchen below. The sun rising in exactly the same place along the horizon. The same paperboy on his bicycle. The same barking dog. The same neighbor walking his dog. The same neighbor mowing his lawn. The same ice cream truck wailing in the distance.

Yes, pop-goes-the-weasel was the story of his life. Trapped in a music box.

-viii-

Finally he paid a visit to the local amusement park. No, not that amusement park. That amusement park wouldn’t be built for another forty years.

But one amusement park was much like another. So he sat down in front of the merry-go-round—remembering that day, so many years ago, when he took his grandson to the circus.

For all he knew, his grandson was still riding the merry-go-round. Maybe time passed at a different rate in that dimension. Maybe time didn’t pass at all between one dimension to another, but only within each dimension. Maybe he was still sitting there, in that other dimension.

But in another sense, he was riding his own merry-go-round. Strapped onto that bobbing horse. Watching his fellow riders cling to the reins of their paint-chipped steed. Watching them move in place. Up and down. Round and round—without going anywhere. Same sorry tune over and over again.

They hung on for dear life. They might be bored to death with the merry-go-round, but they would rather be bored to death than have to face death. To dismount meant death. Once they got off the merry-go-round, there was no going back. Another rider took their place.

Except for the occasional soldier or suicide, no one would ever volunteer to leave his saddle. Rather, their fingers had to be pried free against their will. Kicking and screaming.

Tedium or oblivion. That was the choice.

Lonny felt the same way. At least, he used to feel that way.

Religion was bunk. That was his philosophy. For a time.

But as he traveled the globe and devoured whole libraries, life became more Biblical. A roadmap to reality.

It didn’t always seem so. Not in his youthful inexperience. Nor in his elderly ignorance.

But now he’d had a chance to take a second look. Or see things truly for the very first time.

In his solitude, when no one else remembered, God remembered. Forgotten by all but God. The only one who knew him from his former life. His silent companion in this sempiternal dimension. Far worse to live without God than to die with God.

And that is how he began to pray. It didn’t begin in formal prayer. But as a passing snatch of conversation. Something he would share with a traveling companion—if only he had a companion.

And then he became dimly aware that God was always been there. Had been his constant, quiet companion throughout the years. He simply took him for granted all those years because he had other hobbies and playmates.

And so, unconsciously and imperceptibly, he found himself talking to God. Confessing to God.

Like rekindling an old, childhood friendship from a far country. The instant recognition. The easy relapse into one’s ancestral dialect or mother tongue. Broken at first, but becoming fluent over time.

Yes, it was time to loosen his grip. Time to dismount. Time and let another, younger rider take his place.

Tedium or oblivion? No, that was not the proper choice.

Tedium or Te Deum. Now that was the real choice.

His closed his eyes and prayed to be released from his interminable circuit. He could hear the faint sound of music in the background.

-ix-

When he opened his eyes again he half-expected to see the heavenly choir. But what he saw was another merry-go-round.

It looked vaguely familiar. Where had he seen it before? Then he caught a glimpse of his grandson whizzing by.

Ah, yes, that merry-go-round. It seemed like ages. How long had it really been? A second or a century?

After the merry-go-round halted, he gently lifted his grandson from the steed, took him by the hand, led him to the car, and drove him home.

-x-

A few months later he moved into a nursing home. A few years later, he shut his eyes a final time. Once again, he thought he could hear the sound of music harkening in the distance. Faint at first, but growing louder. Only this time, it was not a merry-go-round.

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