“I can’t be sure of the time anymore,” André said to me one day over coffee. “I mean, I look at the numbers on the clocks and what should be translated into time means nothing to me now. Do you think there’s something wrong with me? Be honest.”
“No.” I lied. “You’re perfectly normal. You’re a man of the future unburdened by superfluous concepts meant to regulate the peons and laborers, not the intelligent minds of the Creatives. Relax. Be yourself.”
“Dou you mean that?” André replied. He firmly fixed his gaze on the tabletop and he looked to me like a man walking down a hallway to his expected death. “About me being creative?”
“Sure. Sure.” I lied some more. It could not hurt, I thought at the time. “You’re one of the brightest, most misunderstood of the contemporary artists. You should be thankful you’ve risen above the meaningless notions as noon and midnight. What are they to the artist but restrictions to duty? Besides, most people are shadow representations of who they really want to be. And you aren’t like most people.”
“Is that true?” André said to me with a slight whimper at the end of his question. For some reason he couldn’t lift his gaze, as if ashamed, and his body became slanted as though italicized, and he grew sterner by the minute as he plucked petals from off the little yellow flowers situated as a centerpiece between us on our table. “Is it true when you say that I’m one of the brightest?”
“Absolutely.” I lied even more. “What would the world do without artists like you? Without artists who give life meaning?” I honestly didn’t think André heard a word I said. André’s arrogance and hubris seemed, to me at least, to blind him to certain realities and verities most sane people take for granted on a daily basis. “Don’t waste your time contemplating your identity and questioning your existence. You’re here now and you’re talented and doing what you love for the reasons no one can understand. Why bother with silly notions as time?”
I could’ve been mistaken but André faded out, like a brief blurring of the sharp edges around his face and shoulders. After all, André was real and sitting across from me at the table. Still, the more I spoke to him the more his depth and solidity appeared to me to diminish in barely perceptible degrees, like watching a lion step into the fog at night and vanish in shape and form. André was there but not there, at times, and so I said,
“Are you feeling okay? You look a bit pale and sickly. How about we order some food?”
“I don’t want to eat,” André said in a voice shaky but resolute. “I haven’t eaten in days, maybe weeks. I don’t know how long it’s been. Like I said, I can’t tell the time anymore. Just as minutes and hours make no sense to me, days and months feel all the same.”
“There’s no need to worry,” I told André that fateful Sunday morning. “When I wake up late in the afternoon, there are times when I couldn’t be sure I didn’t sleep the whole night away. Time can trick us, you know.”
“I feel like I’m going to sleep, not waking up,” André said as he stopped looking at the yellow flowers on the table. He began, instead, watching the rain turn into snow outside the windows next to us which revealed a lake, not yet frozen over, in a park, that we knew, was surrounded by a vast city. Looking out that window, though, I imagined André thought we were a hundred miles outside civilization. “Dreaming, dreaming,” André said. “Am I dreaming, or are you?”
“One thing’s for sure,” I said, ignoring his last remark which sounded to me like a slip from reality, “It’s been an eternity since I last saw you. You’ve been busy, no doubt?” Changing the subject and direction of the conversation to a more positive tone, however, would prove more difficult than my earlier expectations. “How is Tatiana?” I asked when no response was given to my previous query. “She’s well, I pray?”
“Pray all you want,” André said with a bit of malice. He clutched his hands into fists and pressed them against one another. “I’m leaving and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Most certainly, then upon his final word, André’s figure flickered, like a bad movie projection, and I convinced myself that I’d had far too many espressos. “Don’t be absurd. You and Tatiana have been together forever. Are you having a mid-life crisis?” But when I studied André’s physical constitution a bit more closely, I noticed he had a great many more gray hairs than I remembered him having the last time we met a few months prior. His beard, even, had transformed almost overnight from a shiny brown into a ghastly gray of dead hairs flaking off his shriveled cheeks and chin. What scared me at that time was the thought of how André and I were the same age, born even in the same month of the same year; if he could look like a dead man losing touch with the physical world around us, so then could I!
“André.” I reached out and grabbed both his fists in the palm of my right hand. “Talk to me,” I said, no longer having the willingness to console through lies. “What are you going through? You can tell me anything.”
“Time makes no sense to me,” he repeated, and fears started to foam in his eyes. For an instant his fists became like gas and my own hand slammed to the table. Immediately his own hands covered my hand now flat on the tabletop. A trick of the eye—that was all it was. André had always been fast, though he no longer appeared the athletic type to me. Age can do weird things to the body and the mind. “What time is it?” André asked me with pleading eyes. “Tell me, please, the time. I must be going.”
Sensing a trap, as a bear might around the steel jaws hidden beneath leaves and twigs, I didn’t know how to answer. I checked my Montblanc watch and noticed the numbers spinning round and round in a counterclockwise motion; when I became dizzy, I ceased looking at my watch and fixed my stare on the horizon outside the window where I saw a mother and her son, a toddler, holding hands in the snow. For an instant I thought it could’ve been my own wife and son out there, but in another moment I reflected it could’ve been my mother holding my hand. “I don’t know what time it is,” I told André truthfully. “It must be a quarter after one, at the latest.”
It was as though André had me ministering to his superstitions. On top of that, when I looked down at the table, our cups of espressos and the little yellow flowers had been removed at some point in the conversation. The waiter might’ve even cleaned the surface with a wet rag, because now our table lay empty with a sheen of liquid glinting from the light coming from the fluorescent lamps above us. When I looked up to the lamps, I further noticed, that they were not stationary, as one expects them to be, but swaying slightly as though they were being disturbed by a commotion in the upstairs room, and I imagined, albeit briefly, André and Tatiana were the ones causing the excitement in the room directly above.
“Do you think we should go?” I was talking to André but when I turned my sights from off the ceiling and back to André, his chair was empty and he, my friend, was gone. André had never been the one to leave without a word, and he was never “as quiet as a mouse,” as the saying goes, but sure enough André had left me sitting at that empty table and I wasn’t even sure how long I’d even been sitting there before I realized he’d left and I was alone. Ten minutes? Twenty? I honestly didn’t know.
The next moment—for I’m not wholly confident to be certain how long it took for time to pass while I sat alone at an empty table in a crowded restaurant—I found myself in the snow by the lake looking for the mother and her son. I saw them not.
Instead, while watching the first snowfall of winter, I stood on the shore of the wide lake and thought of how nothing is assured permanence and stability in this world, not even to time and not even to myself. The vast world across the lake lay before me, and it lay there like a field gruesome after a bloody battle and I was the General on a high hill overlooking the scene of my own desires. The lake, though, was but water to cleanse and not a field to bury—both, however, have been known to embrace the dead.
It took me over an hour to walk around the lake, and not once did I see another soul in my passing. At one point, I thought the whole lake and park belonged to me, until a small fox urged its head out of a hole in the ground along the shoreline and thought it warm and safe enough to come out of its home to stretch and yawn and bathe in the sunlight. That’s when I knelt to the frozen earth—forgetting the time and the world—held out my hand to the little fox and waited as the snow collected all around.
How long could it have been? I’m still not sure, nor do I care. What matters is that at some point the fox eyed me curiously, sniffed the air for danger, and eventually stepped to my outstretched palm. Even though we weren’t touching, we—the fox and I—could feel one another and our two breaths became one.
The little fox stepped over the snow closer to me, and before I knew what was happening—as though we held no memory of the past or the world around us—the fox came to me and lay its head down and rubbed its wet nose and whiskers in the heat of my hand.
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy). He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son, The New America: A Collection, Vanity of Vanities, A Time to Love in Tehran, and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.