Katie Berger

Time Travel: Theory and Practice

Initial Inquiry

                I possess a distinct memory of flying through my living room. The cape was a pastel blanket named Blanky gathered around my neck with a clothespin. I had to get a running start, as far back as the kitchen two rooms over. I glided low first, brushing my stomach against the carpet, then swooped up and over my dad as he sat watching the news. I will not tell Paul about this memory.
                But I tell him anyway one day when we run out of things to talk about. He is fascinated that I remember such a thing as that. He owns a similar such thing, a family vacation in Florida with Mickey and Minnie and sand dollars and popsicles, and yet no photo album in his parents’ attic contains any evidence of Florida.
                Memories break, he said. Often, they run out of batteries, lose a wheel or two, snap a little plastic gear, and go spinning so far away from the truth they are rendered useless. The goal, of course, is to re-glue the wheels, buy some new batteries, re-store, re-build, without having to re-invent. If we could free our memories from ourselves, he explained, we would know the truth. About the flying? Just the truth. A truth? Sure.
                He spoke of an exploratory operation to diagnose why I remember flying, and this is true – he was halfway to a doctorate in English literature, and doctors can do operations.
                Not many four-syllable words comprised my childhood, but Op-er-a-tion did because of the game, the chubby naked man with the light-up red nose and holes poked in him. I had thought the red plastic behind the man was a tray I could slide out to access the little plastic body parts I wasn’t able to extract myself. But it’s not. The only way to get to the slice of bread, the ribs, the broken heart, is to pull them out on your own with the included tweezers while not touching the metal of the tweezers to the metal edges of the incisions, lest the red nose light up, the terrible buzzing fill your ears. I grew so frustrated with the raw, angry noise, the failure of my fingers, that I ripped the tweezers from the string that attached them to the game and lost them forever.
                This memory is memory, not guaranteed to emerge without terrible noises and lights. If you do get a glimpse of my memory, Paul, what will it even look like? A piece of bread? A heart with a crack in it?
                Maybe not operation. Maybe something less invasive, more akin to something done in a dentist’s chair. He will look on eBay for one.


                The common ground between us was the ground We of course both lived in the city now and rarely strayed from the university, but our past selves sprang from emptiness – what some call the Great Plains. Plain, yes. Great, no, never, we always told each other.
                I grew up three hours north of the city, he three hours east of the city and several years ahead of me. The counties in this geography are little squares – my entire childhood filled a square, his another.
                My Girl Scout camp, which was near a river and in another square, hinted at hills and trees and other hiding spaces. I remembered the trees held to the ground with the very sound of birds chirping, and a hill to run or roll down – a chance to feel gravity, to test it, to know it wasn’t just something puppets sang songs about on educational access television.
                At home, during the school year, I had no trees to hide in nor hills to disappear behind. I could see my dad’s car coming home from work from entire blocks away. If the annoying neighbor girl came over to play, I could not hide. She’d spot me as soon as she had the thought to walk over.
                This open landscape led to a weird openness within, an acceptance that no tree or hill could conceal anything, so anything was often the best and only route to take. Just play Cat’s Cradle with her and her stretchy neon string. It might not even be that bad.
                So I guess it’s obvious that Paul and I, both from open terrain, spoke so openly with each other, moved the conversation so directly into theories and issues within the study of time travel.
                Or it might have been that other tendency of the Plains – that weird trick the land itself plays. Because it has no hills or trees coupled with a questionable sense of gravity, the land tends to let time plod over it at a faster, brasher rate than in other places.
                The house my mother was born in stands in ruins. Her high school, to save itself from closing, amputated a day from its week – no class on Fridays. My dad switched schools several times in an attempt to graduate from one before it closed. The school district his own dad ran as superintendent lasted long enough to produce two yearbooks. (I also knew the hills he had to walk up both ways to school were a lie, not for the usual reasons, but because we have no hills in the first place.)
                It’s easy to speak of time’s tendency to pummel the land when it happens in the times of your parents and grandparents, but I do remember it happening myself. I remember giggling and tiptoeing through abandoned houses. The giant ceramic chicken that sat atop the restaurant where the neighbor girl worked (and my mom and aunt before her) now fills a room of a local museum. I own a Smurfs lunchbox from a store that has since been bulldozed. I wore tights and a dress the day my cousin graduated with all six of his classmates. The next year, they didn’t bother to open the school. My dad’s friend bought another schoolhouse and turned it into a house. He gave me the chalkboard and three of the same Grade One reader with pictures of a cartoon honeybee in various poses on the cover. My friend who worked at the restaurant was killed in a car accident on a road that, despite being described to me several times, is nowhere in my memory. Same goes for the cemetery she’s buried in. I had the directions written on a piece of paper at one point, and gave them to another friend, who looked but found only corn.
                It was always assumed that once I grew up I would leave like everything else tended to do. So I did.
                Paul left for similar reasons, carrying his own memories marred and crumpled by a land that gave itself over to time all too easily. The city with its concrete and stoplights felt safer for both of us, the university with its grades and courses and textbooks even more so. Until he brought up the time machine idea. That was dangerous, especially considering where we came from.

Some facts about time machines

                So dangerous, in fact, that I stopped waiting in the hallways for Paul between classes, stopped checking to see if the light glowed under his office door, stopped dismissing early the Facts 101 course I taught in order to catch him for lunch. I had so much I wanted to tell him, including the remedy I’d found as a teenager for combatting the Plains and their inability to accommodate a consistent chronology. It didn’t even involve planting a forest or ripping up the earth to make a mountain, but I still didn’t tell him what I did.
                I’ll admit it - I just memorized everything. The back of the shampoo bottle. The little card my grandpa gave me that listed out the names of the 93 little square counties. The world map. The state map. The periodic table. All the questions and answers in an episode of Jeopardy. This remedy of facts wasn’t just a ticket to the university (although it was that, too), but the very feel of the information in my head seemed to counter whatever it was time was doing to my childhood. Time was death and disappeared stores and missing roads and a giant chalkboard hanging in my basement. I lost the eraser but kept writing words over words when I played teacher because I didn’t like the way the board felt when I rubbed it with my hand.
                The facts, in contrast, didn’t disappear and change and deceive and wound – they stayed in one place and did not require suffering. On the days when the wind ripped over the Plains so angrily that the trash can, garden rake, and watering can blew away with it, I’d actually feel the facts holding me to the ground. This was proof that the gravity the puppets sang of did indeed exist here – you just had to memorize the exact wording of the law of gravity for it to have any effect whatsoever.
               Paul knew I knew the law of gravity and every other law, saying “Ok, yeah, thanks” in an odd voice whenever I’d find at least three factual inaccuracies in one of his papers on time travel. But what he didn’t know mattered even more once he dove deeper into his work. He didn’t know I’d memorized the blueprint for a time machine.


                I found the blueprint for the time machine when my mind was stuffed with chipmunks, Siberian tigers, ptarmigans, Indian elephants. My grandpa had just died, and I carried my wild animal flashcards around everywhere, memorizing the habitat range of the baboon and the Latin name for the red squirrel as my parents took me to the nursing home, then the hospital after the failed operation, and eventually the church. I’d felt time grumbling and moaning and swirling at a heavier pace than usual, the empty spaces in rooms felt more important, and the walls seemed to hold some knowledge of my grandfather they couldn’t impart to me because they had no mouths. I’d stare for hours at the orange tiger stomping over the white snow. Right leg in front of the other. Snow clumps clinging to the fur around his stomach. Same steady look in his eyes. I didn’t imagine him pouncing or lying down or doing anything beyond stomping through the snow. I didn’t want to. I liked the idea of his footprints staying exactly as they were.
                I figured out that I could only stare at the tiger and the other animals for so long – certain scraps of them simply wouldn’t latch themselves to my memory. Neither the full name of the toucan nor the diet of the polar bear ever found homes in my head. Shortly after the funeral, I went through the box that had appeared in the basement on the floor near the chalkboard, looking for new things to study. I found two books, both with a full-sized picture of my grandpa on the last page, and the word “superintendent” underneath. Several other books, too, even more worn, the scribbling at the beginning and end saying “Hey Einstein!” “Hey genius!” “When will you get us to the moon?”
                These books were full of things to memorize, including the rosters of a basketball team, a pep club, a freshman class, and the names of the lunch ladies. When I picked up the leather-bound book with the name of an important university on it, I expected more clubs and honor societies, but out poured graph paper with numbers and lines and angles and erased markings, and on the final pages, a drawing of a metal box with buttons and dials and a display with a needle that pointed to numbers. I lost interest in the other books after that.
                I’m not sure where in time this memory belongs, but I remember my brother and me shouting questions at my mother and giggling as she grew more and more tired of us. No, he didn’t invent the atomic bomb. Not a laser gun, either. No, no weapon of any kind. It was an air purifier, ok? It takes dust and dirt from the air. No, it’s not top secret; it sits in the corner of a room. It just hums. She explained a company in South Dakota bought the rights to the patent from my grandfather but only made a few of them. The design was ahead of its time but not cost efficient.
                I must admit this now – I have either memorized the plans for a time machine or an air purifier.


                Lately, the halls of the university have been decorated with green pieces of paper announcing a symposium on time travel with Paul as one of the key presenters.
                I have come to accept that certain memories do not want to be at the forefront of my mind, yet I still remember.
                The location is a blank space when I think of it, but coffee in two dark blue cups were involved. He was concerned about his sister – she was creating a scrapbook with rickrack and glue and some old family photos. I’m fine with the glitter and stickers, anything that adds to it – it’s the scissors I hate. She’d been snipping out certain elements she disliked – a mentally unstable uncle from a Thanksgiving dinner, a messy room complete with overflowing dog food bowl from a birthday picture. He wanted to know how that was history.
                He’d like to make his own scrapbook to counter hers. Include full photographs, birth dates, maybe some newspaper clippings with citations underneath. Maybe even a bibliography.
                What. What? No, what? I remember phrases like “your capacity to remember,” “all that knowledge”, “enviable,” “beautiful in a way,” and “surely if anyone…you would be the person to…”
                We talked of colored pencils, paper with stripes and polka dots, hole punchers in the shapes of bunnies and stars, then moved the conversation into lists of craft stores in the vicinity of the university.
                If I bought all that, would you make one? For me?
                We have this way of arriving at conclusions by batting words back and forth. Problems with sisters turn into a listing of potential supplies, which turns into a list of potential supply store locations. We move into the future in this way.
                I was five when I crafted the Popsicle stick house without doors or windows. My fingers were too long for the child-sized scissors, so I didn’t bother to cut the sticks into shorter planks that could make room for openings.
                I was a bit older when I spilled an entire pot of orange paint across the red, blue, yellow rendition of my home, instantly igniting a monochromatic house fire. My cat and rabbit I sewed from felt look exactly the same.
                I could tell you the average length of the ear of the cottontail rabbit, I could tell you its typical lifespan and typical diet and preferred habitation zone, but I cannot draw you an accurate picture of it.
                I will not make you a scrapbook, Paul, sorry. So I tried my best to recite something I’d read in a physics textbook, one I found in the box of my grandfather’s things.
                When a memory, no matter how close to the actual truth, moves into the present, whether by means of scrapbook or yearbook or conversation with two blue cups of coffee, it reaches a certain velocity shortly before it moves into the present. That velocity causes the original event to shed some of its molecules, thus ensuring that no memory experienced in the present is whole, pure. Ever. It’s probably a law. Like gravity.
                You’re right. As always. If only there was some way we could remember without talking or writing or scrapbooking about it. Bypass that movement into the present, the movement that corrupts it, even destroys it.
                We need to stop pulling the memories toward us. We have to approach them ourselves, slowly on foot, the way a museum visitor approaches a painting.
                Am I right?
                I am not sure how he is doing, but this thought feels like the type of thought that could fill an entire evening, find its way into a dream where its various elements bend into a new reality, and eventually emerge in the form of a scholarly article.
                If I walked through all the doors of all the brick buildings on campus, tearing down the green sheets of paper made to advertise the symposium on time travel, it would still happen.


                It’s true that I have no memory of my grandfather’s time machine blueprint actually listing the components needed to create it. Paul must have stumbled across a similar problem because lately he has been sending notes to our colleagues and posting pieces of paper on bulletin boards, asking for components. Some are screws and hammers and coils and cells, typical machine parts, while others are half full photo albums, GI Joe dolls, child’s plastic tea sets with one or two missing spoons, and vinyl records – records, yes, perfect. Perfectly obsolete and perfect for slicing into halves. In the note, he calls it “a chance to clean out all that junk in your basement!”
                The colleagues delight in this – each corner of our employee lounge looks more and more like a garage sale. Sometimes around the lunch hour, one of them will pull a Godzilla doll or a Barbie car from one of the piles and say “Hey! I had this, too!”
                I think of what I could donate to this project – my grandfather’s yearbooks, the Smurf lunchbox whose Thermos has since disappeared, my animal cards with all the facts that wouldn’t quite fit in my head, the cat’s cradle string the neighbor girl wove through her fingers and offered me, even the old schoolhouse blackboard itself, the one that was never erased.
                And yes, the Operation game. In fact, from my memory of the blueprint, the man’s body parts would be the perfect size for certain microchips. I made the mistake of telling a colleague this as she searched her desk drawers for pop bottle lids she could contribute to Paul’s cause. Somehow, Paul learned about the Operation game and stopped me in the hall one day to ask if he could have it. I shrugged and kept walking, protecting my own chronology.

Alternate History

                Last weekend Paul invited the department over to his house for a chance to drink some beer, sit in the old dentist’s chair in the cockpit of the time machine, and smile. I have heard several descriptions of the time machine, and I use these versions to create a composite in my mind: “beautiful,” “a life’s work,” and “more art installation than machine.”
                I often wonder what the time machine could be if I told him about the blueprint. He would probably dub a visit to my parents’ basement circa my childhood as a perfect test run. I imagine him clattering backward through history with his Tinker Toy gears, jump rope cables, Rubik’s cube destabilizer, to emerge in front of the blackboard. His time machine is most certainly flawed at this point in its development. Paintings in art galleries will wobble on their hanging wires. The wrong songs from the wrong eras will get stuck in his head. Memory, sensing its own irrelevance, will scream in his ears and bite at his hands as he reaches out to rifle through the box of my grandfather’s books until he finds the leather one with the name of the university on it.
                Once back in the present (granted the bike handles and walkie talkie antennas could get him there), he will dismantle his creation, pitching the toys we gave him in the trash and replacing them with X, Y, and Z – whatever it was my grandfather listed as a component to create a fully operational time machine. Paul will evolve the time machine into what it needs to be. He’ll stay up all night if he has to.


                With the perfect time machine operating at the university, we would become the perfect university. We will know the diet and habitation of every animal, we will know whether my grandfather was a genius. We will memorize the X and the Y and the Z, and we will know how the controls connect to the gears and how the blueprints can get us there. We will know which year to visit. We will know how to obtain the truth.
                We will not need to remember our conversations nor the color of the cups of coffee. We can forget how to fly across rooms with blankets for capes. The time machine will remember it for us. The law of gravity will keep us firmly on the great plain of the truth, and we will know the path to everything.

Katie Berger is a student in the MFA in creative writing program at the University of Alabama. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in The Broken Plate, Blue & Yellow Dog, The Untidy Season: An Anthology of Nebraska Women Poets, among others.
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