He was doing research for his honors project. The topic was suicide notes. This wasn’t quite as morbid as it sounded. Joachim was primarily interested in the ideation behind the suicidal expression and the evolution of the form itself. He didn’t know who (or what) had crafted the first one. The earliest suicide note he’d found was a drawing on a cave wall in the south of France. This particular Paleolithic-era artist traced his own hands and then drew two smaller versions representing the mate and child he’d lost the previous spring. He did all of this a few days before throwing himself off a cliff to his death. When he was 16, Joachim first heard (and believed) Arthur Nathan’s theory that 400 years’ worth of crop circles (the ones that weren’t hoaxes) was really just one extraterrestrial’s rather maudlin version of “Goodbye, cruel world.” According to Prof. Nathan’s translation, it was an adolescent over-dramatizing a first break-up.
It was all open to interpretation, and some of them were on the abstract side. He’d watched Gaius Julius Caesar manipulate a group of his former peers into ending his life at the apex of his power and fame. The “note” was encoded in the great man’s will. Caesar made it clear that he knew his death was the only way to preserve his reputation. Points for creativity, as suicide-by-cop has nothing on suicide-by-senatorial cabal. Joachim recognized Credonic IX for the brutal tyrant he was, yet had also found himself fascinated by the ego of a man willing to turn a thriving planet and its three inhabited moons into his own funeral pyre. He still thought that message lacked the power and panache of Brazilian President Vargas’ Carta Testamento.
Of course, many of his opinions changed after he met Naomi and her sister, Sheila. He arrived on the corner of Baronne and Julia in New Orleans’ Central Business District. He was in his own body, though it took him a good minute or two to be sure of this. Time jumps were always disorienting. “Like every cell in your body is experiencing a head rush,” is how Trevor once described it.
Joachim had overshot his destination. The jump itself was a real close call (the look on the train conductor’s face. . .), but he’d thought that getting a definitive answer to the “did he or didn’t he” question with respect to Jozsef Attila was worth the risk.
The purpose of this trip was to gain insight into a famous suicide note from Earth’s 21st century. Its author was a renowned poet. She’d achieved fame posthumously. In fact, nothing she’d written had been published before her death. The suicide note was discovered in her attic, in a journal lying next to her body. Born in 1923, she kept a journal for the last 42 years of her life. The rest of the volumes had been found lining the otherwise empty bookshelves in her sitting room. The suicide missive, in the form of a poem, was on the last page of her last journal. (The second-to-last page was a scathing commentary on what the author saw as lingering “color” issues within New Orleans’ African-American community. She was light-skinned herself, but took those of every shade to task for perpetuating certain stereotypes.) Scholars described the untitled poem as a poignant expression of love in the midst of extreme loneliness. She was saying farewell to her family, friends long gone, and a city she believed would never be restored. She didn’t defend her choice to end her life, but simply tried to explain it. Joachim took her words to mean that she’d chosen to silence herself, instead of leaving the task to someone or something else. There was much debate over whether Leda Gardner would have been rescued had she not decided to slit her wrists. Joachim had no real opinion one way or the other. Trevor thought it mattered a great deal. If her situation was hopeless, whether she knew it or not, Trevor believed that it somehow “cheapened” her decision.
When her work began appearing in literary magazines, many in the press attempted to portray her (however subtly) as some sort of self-taught savant. Joachim thought this would have ticked her off. Leda Gardner was a Southern University (Baton Rouge) graduate with a master’s in education from Xavier, and damn proud of it.
Joachim knew that he was in the right place, wrong time the instant he looked at his chronometer, which read Sunday, January 7, 2007. It took him a little bit longer to realize that a fight had broken out 10 meters in front of him. He saw one man beat another senseless while two young women watched. One woman was crying. The other looked annoyed.
Light waves were being bent around him, he knew, but beyond that Joachim could not really have explained the physics behind the various distortion effects that (usually) prevented him from being noticed when he materialized. This had bothered him until the time he asked a late 20th century journalism student how her camcorder worked. She just shrugged her shoulders. To her, the how was secondary to the fact that the device functioned the way it should. Joachim felt the same way about the technology he relied on.
There were only four people (not counting himself) in the immediate vicinity. When he “popped” into view (it wasn’t audible, but he still liked to think of it that way), another distortion effect guaranteed that observers would see him in an outfit he’d pre-selected to blend in with his surroundings. Here it was black jeans and a grey long-sleeved shirt.
One man finally stopped beating up the other and ran off. The crying woman continued sobbing, but she made no move towards the figure now lying half in the street and half on the sidewalk. Joachim walked towards the trio.
“What do you want?” were Naomi’s first words to him.
“Nothing, I was just – ”
“Whatever.” She glanced at the other woman (who was still crying), shook her head, and then motioned to the barely conscious man lying at her feet. “Can you give me a hand?” She grabbed one of the man’s arms. Joachim grabbed the other and they propped him up against the wall behind them.
“Friend of yours?” he asked.
“Sheila’s boyfriend. Or ex-boyfriend. Depends on the time of day.”
“Sheila?” Joachim asked.
“My sister.” Naomi pointed at the other woman. “I’m Naomi.” She wiped her hand on her pant leg (she was also wearing black jeans) and extended it out to him.
“George Sanders.” Joachim said. It was a running gag between him and Trevor. They always chose a suicide from at least 50 years before the date to which they were traveling.
“Like the actor?”
“My dad loved Ivanhoe.” He said, wishing he’d gone with Charles R. Jackson. Joachim didn’t know if his father had even seen the movie. Lance Rison killed himself 7 months before the birth of his youngest son. He’d never felt comfortable broaching the subject of her late husband’s likes and dislikes with his mother. Actually, he’d never felt comfortable discussing much of anything with her.
“Right. This waste of space is Marlon.” She nudged the prostrate man with her toe, eliciting a moan. Naomi started rummaging through Marlon’s pockets, prompting another moan. Naomi gave an exasperated sigh. “Sheila, get over here!” She said. The other woman had been staring up at the sky. She turned around and walked over to them.
“Hello,” Sheila said to him. He held out his hand to her. Sheila kept her arms at her side. Naomi grabbed a small brown leather purse off of her sister’s shoulder.
“Sheila Gardner, this is George Sanders.” Naomi said. “Yeah, like the actor,” she added when Sheila furrowed her brow. Naomi began rummaging through the purse.
“Gardner?” Joachim said.
“Voila.” Naomi said, pulling out an open pack of cigarettes and a small, green lighter. She lit one, and quickly placed the lighter and cigarettes in her pocket before taking a drag. “What were you saying?”
“Gardner. I asked if your last name was Gardner.”
“So you’re Leda Gardner’s niece.” Joachim said. Naomi Gardner was the editor of the vast majority of her great-aunt’s published works. There was plenty of disagreement in literary circles over whether she received too much or too little credit for the finished product.
“Jesus.” said Naomi. Joachim noticed that Sheila was now standing behind him. It was slightly disconcerting. “You’re not that guy from the Picayune, are you?”
“No.” Joachim said. Sheila moved beside him. She sighed, and laid her head on his shoulder.
“New Orleans Magazine?” Naomi asked.
“I’m not . . . I mean, I was just passing by, and—”
“You’re here about the poems, though, right?”
“Sort of, but—”
“I knew it!” Naomi grabbed her sister’s arm and pulled her away from Joachim. “Look, if she’d wanted that stuff published, she’d have done it herself. Carl never even knew about the journals! I’m not budging on this, and you can quote me.” That took Joachim by surprise.
“I’m not a reporter.”
“Whatever.” Naomi said. “Hold this.” She gave the purse to Joachim. Naomi knelt down and rummaged through Marlon’s pockets again. The man didn’t moan this time, but he let out a loud sigh and his head plopped from one shoulder to the other. She pulled out a cell phone. Joachim looked from her to her sister. Sheila was now walking on the edge of the curb as if on a tightrope. “No, this is Naomi. You’d better come and get your boy,” he heard her say. “Uh-huh. Anthony found him and beat his ass! Right. Hospital, homeless shelter, mortuary, I don’t care where you take him. He’s not my problem.” She flipped the phone closed and dropped it onto Marlon’s lap.
Sheila was twirling her hair around her finger. “Can we go now?” She said flatly. Naomi sighed.
“Come on.” Naomi grabbed her sister’s hand. The women started walking southwest on Baronne.
“It was a pleasure meeting you.” Sheila said.
“Hey!” Joachim called out. “What about Marlon?”
“What about him?” Naomi answered. “If his friends give a shit, they’ll come by to pick his fat ass up.” This was one of the periods in Earth’s history in which corpulence was not necessarily a mark of wealth. In this time it was often an invitation to ridicule. In the U.S. in particular, thinner was deemed better in this era. It was the same thing with hairlessness (natural, not the result of removal) in his time.
Joachim waited until Marlon’s friends pulled up. They shoved him out of the way, and scooped Marlon into a black SUV. Joachim hurried off after Naomi and Sheila. He’d seen a photograph of Naomi Gardner, who’d died only a few short years after her great-aunt. He remembered thinking she was pretty, but he now saw that the camera hadn’t done her justice. Her skin was a light caramel color. She wore her hair relaxed, with reddish-brown highlights. She had a snub nose and a generous mouth. The photo had captured all of that, but the living, breathing woman had a “vibrancy” to her, a sense of energy about to burst out at any moment. He thought how sad it was that in his timeline, this spirited young woman died in a one-car crash in near West End.
His arrival had already turned this into an alternate reality. The very instant he made the jump, Cent Chron assigned a catalogue number to this newly created branch of the time stream. (Joachim never liked to consider the possibility that what he thought of as the real timeline was, itself, catalogued as a time-splinter somewhere else). He’d overcome the fear of irreparably damaging the space-time continuum. There had even been a brief period where he made a point of killing at least one butterfly per trip. He still thought that was pretty funny, but Trevor warned him to knock it off before the faculty got wind of it. They frowned on that sort of thing. The guy who went out of his way to muck things up, alternate reality or not, was considered just as unsuited for time travel as the one too paralyzed by fear to even engage the locals in conversation.
Joachim knew that Leda Gardner had lived and died on Deslonde Street in the Lower 9th Ward and he figured that Naomi and Sheila weren’t going that far on foot. He followed them, taking a few surreptitious leaps (through space, not time) in order to catch up. The two women entered a bar on St. Charles Avenue. The sign said that it was open 24 hours. Joachim stood outside for a few minutes before entering.
Joachim started out trying to blend into the crowd. He sat in front of a bar-top trivia machine to the left of the entrance. He’d developed an addiction to them during a trip to late 1990s Manhattan. It was a real trick remembering what time period he was in. Certain mysteries considered unsolved in 2007 were solved by the middle of the century, only to be re-opened a few decades later. The other challenge was trying not to get his timelines mixed up. Both these things became more difficult the more he had to drink. After 6 vodka tonics, he tended to forget that jockey Ron Turcotte had not pulled Secretariat to a complete stop and climbed out of the saddle in the homestretch of the 1973 Belmont Stakes. Trevor, then majoring in sports and leisure activities, had won that bet. There were only a few ways that Big Red could have lost that afternoon. It turned out someone slipping his jockey a pre-race dose of benzodiazepine was one of them.
The first bartender who served him was a woman named Donna. She was a former accountant from California. Donna was very interested in ancient history, and Joachim thought that, for someone who’d never traveled to that era, she knew quite a bit about Rome during the Age of Augustus. Donna sat down next to him after her shift ended. She told him she just had to tell Naomi that someone had beaten all of her high scores. Joachim hadn’t been aware of the significance of the initials NJG. A question about Earth’s Second World War brought back a memory of a fascinating conversation he’d had with Hermann Göring in his Nuremberg jail cell. Joachim didn’t even notice Naomi until she punched him on the shoulder and sat down in the seat vacated by Donna. She helped herself to some of his cheese fries.
“Oops.” Naomi said, watching the screen. “That was a gimme, and you still blew it.”
“You should see me shoot pool.” Joachim said.
“If you’re not a reporter and you’re not working for my uncle, then why are you following us?” she asked. Joachim looked into a pair of luminous, hazel-colored eyes, and found himself struck by the strange urge to tell the truth. He didn’t, of course, but he still tried to tell his story as straight as he could without sounding like a madman.
“I’m a psychology student. I’m doing research for a paper on suicide notes.”
“And you wanted to find out more about the poor little old black woman who gave voice to a city’s heartache.” Naomi grabbed another cheese fry.
“Something like that.” Joachim said. He stared as she licked a bit of melted cheese from the corner of her mouth. “I only started following after I bumped into you guys on Baronne, and that was an accident.”
“Where do you go to school?” she asked.
“Boston.” Joachim said.
“I meant the name of the school.” Naomi signaled the bartender.
“Tufts.” Joachim thought that picking smaller and less well-known schools was a safer bet, particularly if they were located in or near Boston. In the early 21st century, that city had almost as many colleges and universities per square foot as it did residents.
“Oh, yeah? My ex-boyfriend went there. He sang in the Beelzebubs.” She said. Joachim chuckled, wondering how much of this he’d tell Trevor, who always said he went to SUNY-Binghamton, a school and city about which he proudly claimed to know absolutely nothing. When the bartender came over, Naomi ordered another round for both of them. “You’re buying.” She told Joachim.
“Where’s Sheila?” He asked.
“Donna’s keeping an eye on her.” Naomi took a quick glance over her right shoulder towards the pool room. She was drinking 7 and 7’s. Naomi warned him that while she usually wasn’t a mean drunk, she’d been under a lot of stress and was making no guarantees as far as her mood was concerned. She really did prove to be a trivia whiz, although she told Joachim that Sheila had a much better memory for useless information. Naomi also proved to be just as competitive as he was, even accusing him of cheating by raising his eyebrows “at the wrong time” and influencing her to change an answer. Joachim, then on his 10th vodka tonic, didn’t even try to explain that, technically speaking, the first atomic bomb in her planet’s history was dropped on a bio-dome in Atlantis.
Naomi was 23 years old. She told him that she’d dropped out of Tulane two courses short of graduating with a major in English and a concentration in creative writing. She’d gotten pregnant at the start of her senior year and, after a great deal of soul searching, decided to keep the child, only to miscarry in her second trimester. When Katrina hit, she got her sister out of the city as quickly as she could. She didn’t mention her great-aunt, and Joachim assumed it was because the memory was too painful, although Naomi did tell him about losing her parents in her early teens and becoming a virtual caretaker for her older sister. She was now working as an Administrative Assistant at a treatment center for homeless and indigent drug addicts and alcoholics. She said she found the job very rewarding but extremely frustrating.
Naomi provided Joachim with a greater understanding of the phrase “disarmingly honest”. She fooled you into thinking her life was an open book. She gave you so much information (whether you asked for it or not), that it took you a while to figure out that she kept her feelings and emotions to herself. Naomi inundated you with intimate details about her life, but she didn’t invite (or even understand) real intimacy. Joachim didn’t get the sense that she was trying to get him drunk. He just thought she found his drunkenness pleasantly distracting. Naomi divided the world into categories of distraction. Some were pleasant. Some were mildly interesting. Most of them just got on her nerves.
They talked a great deal about Sheila. Naomi said her sister suffered from a pervasive development disorder which mostly resembled a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome. Sheila had a remarkable memory and a tremendous facility for languages and music. She simply spent most of her existence emotionally detached from the rest of humanity. This jibed with Joachim’s observation of her speech and mannerisms. He wondered whether anyone had ever misdiagnosed Naomi as alexithymic. Naomi was perfectly capable of interpreting nonverbal signals; she just chose to ignore them.
It took a little over an hour for the topic to turn to suicide.
“I’m obviously interested in it, but I’ve never thought about doing it.” Joachim said.
“Bullshit.” Naomi said. “You’re obviously more than just interested in it, which tells me you must have at least entertained the idea.” She blew cigarette smoke in his face.
“I’m serious. My dad killed himself, but –”
“Now I get it.” She said, not understanding. “Young George walked in on his dad swinging from the ceiling fan and decided to engage in the lifelong pursuit of understanding why.
“No. He died before I was born.” Joachim took a sip from his drink.
“Ah, so he’s trying to unravel the mystery that is the father he’s never known.” Naomi said with mock solemnity.
“Nope.” Suicide was rare in his era. By the time he went away to school, his older sisters had outgrown the need to invent fantastic stories to explain their father’s absence. When it was Joachim’s turn everyone knew that Lance Rison woke up one morning, ate breakfast, and, for no apparent reason, flew his cruiser into a mountain range. When he was 13, Joachim read his first suicide note. He was immediately intrigued. He could not conceive of what would drive a sentient being not only to end his own sentient awareness (and here, self-sacrifice for a greater good or euthanasia didn’t count), but also to feel compelled to try to explain something so fundamentally inexplicable to those he was leaving behind. How could you be so hopeless about your own condition, yet still cling to the hope that others would care about your motives or try to make sense of what you had to say? It still seemed like a paradox to him. “What about you?” He asked.
“What about me?” Naomi said. “Oh, killing myself? Tried it twice. Didn’t take.” Her laughter didn’t reach her eyes.
“And, how’d I try? Or, and, do I still think about it?”
“Pills. Both times. Drunk for one, sober for the other.” She drummed her fingers on the top of the bar. “I got charcoaled the second time around. Not very pretty.”
“Interesting.” Joachim said.
“Not really. It was like the times I’ve convinced myself I was in love with a guy, when I was really in love with the idea of being in love with him.”
“So, you were –”
“Let me try to explain.” Naomi rested her hands on top of the bar, and laid her head on them. She looked up at him. “I was enthralled by the thought of ending my life, but I wasn’t really ready to have it end.”
“That’s actually interesting.” Joachim said.
“Thanks.” She smiled.
“What about now?”
“Do I still think about it? Shit, yeah. I mean, part of me has a hard time believing someone when they tell me the thought doesn’t ever cross their mind.” She paused. “Do you wanna hear something funny?”
“Sure.” Joachim said.
“The thing that really stops me from going through with it is that I won’t be around afterward to enjoy it.”
“All of it. My obit. My funeral. The laughter, the tears, the gossip. I won’t get to participate. That’s the irony. I’m pissed because I spend a lot of my time thinking that my death might be the only thing to make my life interesting again . . . and therefore worth living.” She downed the rest of her drink. “Well?”
“Did what I say make any sense?”
“Sort of.” Joachim hesitated.
“Spit it out.”
“I think . . . well, it’s like you still love yourself more than you hate your life.” He said. “That’s not really a recipe for a successful suicide.”
“Are you implying I’m self-absorbed?” Naomi batted her eyes at him.
“You’re definitely self-centered. Actually, it sounds like you would kill yourself, if only you weren’t so narcissistic.” He said. Naomi burst into peals of laughter, then buried her head in her hands as her sides shook. “Did you ever leave a note?”
“I was wondering when you’d ask that.” She said. “I wrote several of them the second time. One of them was a keeper, but, you know, suicide notes lose a little something when the writer doesn’t get the job done. If there’s ever a third time, I might just make it look it like an accident.”
“If you hung onto any, I’d like to read them.” Joachim said. “The notes, I mean.” Naomi smiled.
“Maybe after we get to know each other a little better.” She waved the bartender over. “Where’d you say you were staying again?”
“I didn’t. I’m going to try and find a hotel –”
“No, you’re not.” Naomi said, and that settled that. She ordered two shots of tequila, and told the bartender, Steve, to tell another woman, Lisa, to go grab Donna and Sheila from the pool room. It wasn’t until he stood up that Joachim realized just how drunk he really was. Fortunately, Naomi’s building was only a few blocks away. They talked until sunrise. He told her that he’d left his bags in a locker at the Greyhound Station, but that there was nothing he needed right away. Naomi kept giving him surprisingly strong rum and cokes. The last thing he remembered was staring up at the ceiling and hearing Sheila ask her sister how long “Mr. Sanders” was going to be staying with them.
Joachim awakened to the sound of Sheila vacuuming the living room. He opened his eyes the second time she ran the vacuum cleaner into his right foot. Sheila was wearing headphones, and seemed oblivious to his presence. He quickly moved out of the way and let her finish. When he sat back down, he saw that Naomi had left a note on the rattan coffee table.
I had to go to work. (The nuthouse I was telling you about last night.) I didn’t want to wake you. You’re cute when you’re asleep, by the way. There’s food in the fridge if your stomach can handle it. I assume you’ll be able to find the Bus Station from here. Sheila knows the address. I’ll call this afternoon to see what’s up. I don’t have a spare key, but Sheila’s not going to go anywhere until I get back.
Joachim motioned to Sheila that he was going to the bathroom. She gave no overt indication that she understood or cared. He relieved himself, and spent some time trying to figure out what to do next. He was carrying $6,000 in late 20th century U.S. currency. He also knew that he could return to his own time and timeline whenever he chose. Still, he felt himself on the verge of panic. This happened when he found himself somewhere and some when he didn’t want to leave. He was intrigued. He was curious. He also thought he might be in love.
When Joachim walked back into the living room, Sheila told him that he was welcome to do what he wanted, but that she was going to be busy grading fugal chorales for her music theory class. Naomi had mentioned that her sister was a teaching assistant in UNO’s Department of Music. They sat on opposite ends of the futon for 25 minutes of what was, to him, very awkward silence. When the telephone rang, Sheila got up and went to the kitchen to answer it.
“Hello.” He heard her say. “I’m fine. I have a few papers left and some other projects I need to work on.” She paused, and Joachim turned around to look at her. Sheila was looking around the kitchen. “No. He’s not here now. I will tell him if I see him, though. Okay.” She hung up the phone and sat back down on the far end of the futon. “Can I get you anything?” She said.
“No.” Joachim glanced up at the clock. It was 1:30 p.m. “Um, did Naomi tell you when she was coming back?”
“Not this morning, but she just told me she’s very busy and that you shouldn’t expect her until at least 5:30.”
“That was her on the phone?”
“Yes.” Sheila paused. “She asked about you.”
“She asked if you were there, and I told her no.”
“Why did you tell her that?”
“Because you weren’t there.” Sheila said. She raised her eyes from the papers in front of her. It was the first time she’d made eye contact with him.
“I wasn’t?” Joachim asked. He’d been known to accidentally set off his personal cloaking device, especially after a night of heavy drinking.
“No. You were in the living room. I was in the kitchen.” She said. She returned to grading her papers. “I told Naomi I’d give you the message.”
Joachim told Sheila that he was going to the Greyhound Station to get his things. He actually walked to Canal St. and bought himself several pieces of relatively cheap luggage. Afterward, he walked to a nearby shopping mall and raided Saks Fifth Avenue and Kenneth Cole for some actual articles of clothing. He also caught a movie about the life and times of Edie Sedgwick. Naomi was waiting for him when he got back.
“Lousy.” She said when he asked her how her day went. Naomi was sitting on the futon with her legs folded, lotus position. “I hate showing up hung over. There are never cups at the water cooler, and you can’t get any aspirin to save your life.” She pronounced it “cain’t”. It was odd because it was the only word in her vocabulary that revealed her as someone who’d been born and raised in the American South. “Mondays suck anyway. It’s like the guys can’t stand the fact that I can go out and party. Well, half of them already think I’m a bitch because I don’t let them delude themselves into thinking I’m interested in hooking up.” She frowned, and shrugged her shoulders. “I mean, seriously. You’re an unemployed, homeless, and socially maladjusted crackhead. What exactly are you bringing to the table? I could understand if I were some chick who knew you back before you ruined your life, but I’m just seeing the ‘after’ picture, and it’s not pretty.” She folded her arms. “Wait . . . Rewind that one. I had a trying day. I’m glad to be home. I still like my job.” She glanced at the front door. His luggage was standing to one side. “Hey, you got your stuff!” Naomi exclaimed.
“Yes. Yes, I did.”
“What’s that about?” She asked.
“You have a smirk on your face. It was the same thing last night.” She glared at him. “I hate feeling like I’m missing the joke.”
“No jokes here.” Joachim said.
“I told people at work about you.” Naomi said softly. “I never do that. Well, almost never.”
“Good stuff or bad?”
“Good. Definitely good. I said I met someone, and that, his smirking aside, I liked most of what I’d seen so far. I didn’t mention that we got drunk together and that you spent the night.” She paused. “So, what now?”
“I have no idea.” Joachim said. That, at least, was the complete truth. He couldn’t leave yet. He knew he was falling for Naomi, but he told himself that he was staying to unravel the mystery surrounding this apparent battle over Leda Gardner’s literary works. He’d never read anything to that effect in the histories.
“When do you have to go back to Tufts?”
“Winter Study. I don’t have to go back to Boston until the last week in January.”
“What were you planning on doing? Housing-wise, I mean.”
“I’ve got an uncle in Covington.” He sat down on the futon.
“Covington? That’s way too far.” She stretched out and laid her head on his lap. “You haven’t asked yet, but you can stay here. This thing does fold out, you know. Hmm. You smell nice.” She grabbed one of his hands with both of hers. He asked her about her great-aunt and her uncle Carl. She told him they’d talk about it later.
Naomi cooked dinner that night. She said she enjoyed cooking, despite not being very good at it. Sheila neither agreed nor disagreed, but commented that all of her sister’s dishes ended up tasting pretty much the same. “They won’t kill you, though.” Sheila added evenly.
That night, Joachim did not sleep on the sleeper futon.
He asked Naomi if she was going back to Sparky’s Tavern. She told him that one of her cardinal rules was not to drink on consecutive days. There were exceptions, she said, but tonight wasn’t going to be one of them. Joachim had often been told that he sent mixed signals. His attitude towards sex was decidedly casual, but he wasn’t promiscuous. He didn’t run when the opportunity presented itself, but he also didn’t act as if it interested him all that much. Several women had taken his take-it-or-leave-it attitude personally. A few had gotten upset, while others had turned it (and him) into a challenge. Naomi was no-nonsense. When she led him into her bedroom, she took off her top, handed him a jar of sweet almond oil, and told him to give her a back rub. Joachim was grateful the ball wasn’t in his court. It was much, much later before they talked about her great-aunt.
Joachim spent the next several mornings and afternoons at an internet café in the French Quarter. Primitive as they were, he loved these early search engines. It made him feel like a real historian. He quickly pulled up Leda Gardner’s obituary. It avoided mention of suicide, but Joachim noted that she was survived only by her nephew, Mr. Carlton Gardner, Jr. and her two grand-nieces, Sheila and Naomi. From what Naomi had told him, Joachim was fairly certain that Leda Gardner had made no specific instructions regarding her written work. She’d never married, and her three siblings had predeceased her, all but one dying without issue. If no specific instructions existed, then rights to her unpublished works (all of them) passed to her heirs: ½ to Carl and ¼ each to Sheila and Naomi. Uncle Carl had apparently gotten his way in Joachim’s timeline. Not only had the writings of Leda Gardner ended up seeing print, but he’d even talked Naomi into pulling a Christopher Tolkien. Naomi said that Uncle Carl was thinking about the continuing cash flow that Leda’s work represented. He wanted to strike while the iron was hot. Naomi disagreed. Joachim asked her why, but she offered up nothing but vague misgivings. She did make it clear that the state of Louisiana (which could intervene) didn’t care much one way or the other.
Joachim inadvertently solved the mystery while searching Naomi’s bedroom for something to write on. He’d been warned not to mess with Sheila’s papers or files. Naomi said that while her sister had gotten better about expressing this verbally, she could still throw a terrific (and often violent) tantrum when she felt like her personal space had been invaded. (That was what kept Marlon coming back, apparently.) Joachim respected people’s privacy, mainly because of how much he valued his own. He and Trevor had been roommates during their first year at the Institute. Trevor had no respect for others’ privacy, although this was somewhat balanced by the fact that he was quite good at keeping secrets. Trevor wasn’t likely to tell anyone else what he found, but he’d definitely go through all of your stuff if you gave him the opportunity.
When Joachim grabbed a notebook from Naomi’s nightstand drawer, he had no intention of invading her privacy. He really was just looking for something to write on. His eyes scanned a page headed by the struck-through title The Wreckage of Her Future. That was the title poem of the largest collection of Leda Gardner’s poetry. Like many time travelers, Joachim did actually believe in coincidences. As Trevor put it, when you’ve seen how reminding Julian the Apostate to strap on a breastplate can change the entire course of Western Civilization, you should be forgiven a little bit of skepticism about the existence of some sort of grand plan. Still, this was pushing it. Joachim leafed through the rest of the notebook. Understanding came quickly. The next 5 hours were the longest of his life, as he waited for Naomi to come home from work.
“What is this, an ambush?” She said. They were in her bedroom, both standing in front of her dresser. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the side view of their torsos reflected in the mirror.
“No, but I can’t let you do this.”
“Do what? I’m not planning on doing anything.”
“That’s the point.”
“No, the point is that you went through my shit.”
“I’ve already told you, that was an accident.”
“You have a lot of those, don’t you?”
“That’s not . . . Look, who’s the writer in the family, you or your aunt?” He said. Naomi’s expression went from confused to afraid to angry and back in the space of a few seconds.
“Jesus!” She said, and threw herself on the bed.
“So, all of it’s yours?”
“Almost all of it. Aunt Leda couldn’t write her way out of a paper bag, but she was a damn good editor. I used to send her the stuff I was working on. She said it kept her going. She called me her lifeline to the outside world.” She said. “I stopped a few months after I miscarried. I never told her what was going on in my life. Then the storm hit. I never knew how much of it made it into her journals.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I felt so guilty. George, I forgot about her! Not completely, but, you know, I put her out of my mind. I assumed her neighbors would take care of her, or someone from Peter Claver’s. Somebody. Then, well, I thought it was neat when they turned the poem into her last words. And, well . . .” She stopped.
“What? Go on.”
“It felt good to see my words, mine, getting all that attention. I’d never had the guts to put myself out there that way. But then when they found the rest of it, and Carl started talking to publishers . . . ” Her voice trailed off.
“You felt trapped.”
“Yes. My aunt had nothing, George. She had no legacy to leave behind. I abandoned her. I don’t want to take this away from her, too, it’s just. . . I mean, there’s no way I can get back control of my poems without telling the whole truth. Otherwise, I’m just another beneficiary. I’m not ready to make a choice one way or the other. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid. It’s taken all of this to make me realize how much I wanted that. Still want that.” She sighed. “I don’t know. I’ll probably just let Carl go ahead. What’s the worst thing that could happen?”
Joachim didn’t know what to say. He couldn’t tell her that the “worst thing” was that seeing her work published under her aunt’s name would eat at her, a constant reminder of roads not taken. He couldn’t tell her that the sense of frustration would grow and grow until the night she drove her car into a viaduct wall in a deliberate act meant to look like an accident. Instead, he took her in his arms and held her tight, as they listened to the sound of Sheila playing her compositions on her keyboard.
The next few days passed quickly. By Friday night, Joachim felt trapped. He assumed he was already in hot water back at school, but if he stayed any longer the situation might become unsalvageable. Even if he told Naomi everything, what would be the point? He couldn’t take her with him. She might not prove physiologically capable of surviving the trip, and Cent Chron would have a fit either way. And staying here? Absolutely not. There were always stories told at the Institute, cautionary tales really, of students who’d gone “native” and decided to remain in some distant past. Joachim now suspected that these were mostly apocryphal warnings. He liked these jaunts as a change of pace, but he couldn’t see anyone deluding himself into thinking that sticking around permanently was a good idea. Joachim actually started filling out a job application at the Radio Shack on Gentilly Boulevard, but he knew it was hopeless. His ‘porter was already low on juice, so he was dependent upon public transportation. The bus and the streetcar were always arriving within minutes of each other, and neither got you to Broad St. in time to make your connection. Everyone seemed to know this, yet no one did anything about it. He spent three hours sitting on a bench just staring up at the sky. He’d seen Sheila rock herself back and forth when she got agitated. Joachim tried, but it only made him more anxious. He’d gotten off the bus when it neared Greenwood Cemetery. He walked among the monuments and sculptures and wondered if Trevor had managed to get a straight answer out of Thelma Ducoing Toole.
He told himself that Naomi would feel the same if she was in his shoes. She wouldn’t be willing to stay with a man 40,000 years in the past, never to return to her proper place and time, no matter how she thought she might feel about him. The novelty of stone tools would eventually wear off. She’d probably end up using a flint knife to butcher the guy while he slept. It would be the same thing here for him.
When Naomi fell asleep next to him that night, Joachim knew what he had to do.
He had no gift for poetry or prose, so he kept the note as simple as he could.
I’m sorry for so many things. I should have told you all of it, but I could never find the words. You can’t go where I’m going, and if I stayed, I might end up hating you as much as I love you now. Just know that somewhere, some when, I probably made a different choice, and things all worked out.
Joachim told himself that it was all for the best. He kissed Naomi on the forehead. She murmured something unintelligible and he thought he saw the hint of a smile on her lips. He placed the note on her dresser. Joachim took a final look around the bedroom and dematerialized. There was no sound when he “popped” out of view, but he still liked to think of it that way.
In the splinter in time labeled SWY61727336159, George Sanders Gardner was born on October 8, 2007. He was a healthy, 7-pound baby boy with his mother’s hazel eyes and his father’s dimples. His mother, renowned poet and author, Naomi Jean Gardner, dedicated her second and most famous novel, Viaducts, “to both my Georges”. When he was 11 years old, young George first told the story of his father’s death to his 5th grade classmates. The tale changed over the years. Sometimes his father was a fighter pilot. At other times he was in the Peace Corps. Once, in his early 20s, he explained to a date how his dad, working as an offshore area production foreman saved ten members of his crew from certain death, though it cost him his own life. No matter the details, the way George S. Gardner told it, his father always died a hero.