by Michael F. Flynn
Consider the man who is brained by a hammer while on his way to lunch.
Everything about his perambulation is caused. He walks that route because his favorite café is two blocks distant from his workplace. He sets forth at the time he does because it is his lunchtime. He arrives at the fatal point because of the pace at which he walks. There is a reason for everything that happens.
Likewise, the hammer that slides down and falls from the roof of the building half a block along. It strikes with the fatal energy because of its mass and velocity. It has achieved the terminal velocity because of the acceleration of gravity. It slid off the roof because of the angle of the roof, because of the coefficient of friction of the tiles, because it was nudged by the toe of the workman, because the workman too rose to take his lunch, and because he had arranged his tools where he had. There is a reason for everything that happens.
Not much of it is predictable, but who said causes must be predictable?
It would never occur to you – or at least we hope it would never occur to you – to search out “the reason” why at the very moment you started your car, some farmer in Shantung had his foot smashed by his plow-ox. Why should the coincidence become any more meaningful if your Prius is parked by the field where the farmer plows? Proximity in space does not add meaning to coincidence in time. Chance is not a cause, no matter how nearby it lurks.
The hammer has a reason for being there. The diner has a reason for being there. But for the unhappy congruence of hammer and diner, there is no reason. It is simply the crossing of two threads in the world-line.
“Ah, what ill luck,” say the street sweepers as they cleanse the blood and brains from the concrete. We marvel because our superstitions demand significance from coincidence. The man was brained by a hammer, for crying out loud! It must mean something! And so poor Fate is made the scapegoat. Having gotten all tangled up in the threads, we incline to blame the weaver.
Orphans of Time
I. Loberta Shinbro
The night the three youths tried to jack his ride, Loberta Shinbro was drinking in a dingy bar in an unhappy corner of Chicago. But since Shinbro was not himself at that moment the happiest of men, it was a good fit. He had the morose visage of a sheepdog whose sheep have inexplicably vanished. It showed in his face, which was long and narrow and creased with lines at the eyes and lips; and it showed in his drink, which was both plentiful and potent. He swayed a bit on the bar stool, ever on the point of toppling over, yet never quite passing it. The lives of billions had layered on his face and pooled in his eyes. Not even the bartender tried to engage him in conversation. One was half-frightened of what the fellow might say. Anger and sorrow are a potent mix; perhaps more potent than Shinbro’s drink, which was watered in an effort to extend the stock.
The neighborhood was one of warehouses, wholesalers, terminals and similar establishments, and the bar’s clientele the usual gallimaufry of pickers, packers, and teamsters peculiar to such environs. Outside, the night was empty, save for the men at the loading docks prepping the morning deliveries, and the drifting strangers who habitually roved empty nights at two in the morning.
From time to time, Shinbro would glance at the flickering television and mutter something about “phantoms” but neither the bartender nor the other two patrons asked him what he meant. Each dwelt introspectively in his own tidy world until Shinbro’s empty highball glass struck the countertop and he barked, “Another!”
The bartender did not ask him if he thought he’d had enough, because if he’d thought that he would not have banged the countertop quite so emphatically. The bartender poured the bar Scotch. Subtleties of bouquet would be wasted at this point. For the same reason, he watered it more than usual.
“Shy Hero in Manhattan!” the television announced as the hour cycled around to a fresh story in the news-blender. The shout-out tugged momentarily at everyone’s attention, and on the screen appeared a stolid round-faced woman half-turned from the camera, anxious to conclude the inescapable interview. A fire. A baby. A dash through the flames. A rescue! Brief platitudes. Anyone would have done it.
Sure. Maybe. But “anyone” had not.
“Stupid,” said the bartender. “She coulda been killed.” But wasn’t that almost a requirement for heroism? Who is a hero who has never braved danger?
Shinbro continued to scowl at the screen after the woman’s face had been replaced by promises of revivified male performance. “I see this woman before,” he muttered, in accents that proclaimed English an acquired tongue. When the bartender mentioned the price of the water-and-Scotch, Shinbro glanced at each bill and coin as he counted out the tab. Not familiar with the local currency, then; an immigrant and a recent one at that.
“Where’d ya see her?” the bartender asked, not because he was curious but just to break the silence.
But his effort was a match struck on a gusty night. Shinbro said, “Glass water” and from his inside jacket pocket he pulled a flat tin from which he plucked a lozenge. He swallowed it, chased with the water. The bartender pretended not to notice. Everyone was entitled to blaze his own trail to hell, so long as he paid his tab along the way.
Shinbro took a deep, shuddering breath. Then, with the air of one spared the headsman’s axe to keep an urgent appointment on the gallows, he slid from his stool and walked toward the door. He walked without a stagger, too; and the bartender suddenly wished he knew what had been in that lozenge. Buzz-B-Gone, he christened it.
Outside, in the lonely world of the small hours, Shinbro found three young men trying to gain entry to his time machine.
#©Michael F. Flynn 2015
Comments? What do you think this story might be about? What has the prologue got to do with it? Why is Shinbro getting drunk?