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Turning Back

Turning Back

I reached into the darkness of the bedroom for my cell phone. I did not find it. I patted the night table for it but felt flat surface. In the quiet early morning hours. I could not hear my wife Janelle snoring, or even breathing. I reached out to touch her, concerned about her, and nearly fell out of the bed as my hand grasped air. I was in a single bed, not a queen size, but remembered nothing of how I arrived.

I rolled back toward the night table. Illuminated numerals read 5:59. Reaching out to touch them, I felt a large oblong object, a clock radio. No one has a clock radio any more, do they? Without a better plan I awaited daylight, reflecting on what might have happened and where I had alighted. In prison? No, prisons don’t have night tables and clock radios. Maybe a hospital, but not without other people, nurses and orderlies, even at night. No satisfying conjecture. I returned from work at 10 pm, ending long hours that stressed my relationship with Janelle. She felt I should show investment more time in the family. We had two children who needed more “Daddy time,” and she needed occasional respite. I worked to pay a barely affordable mortgage in an upscale neighborhood near the elite schools the children attended. I hoped to catch up financially by the turn of the century in nine years. She had already gone to bed, emitting a muffled snoring that I found endearing. After brushing my teeth and showering, I had carefully slid under the sheets beside her and fallen asleep. A normal evening.

The radio alarm came on. Pete Seeger sang, “We were knee deep in the big muddy, but the big fool said to push on.” Could I find a light switch without hurting myself in the dark? Time passed. Daybreak revealed a miracle. I was in my childhood room, awakening in the single bed with green vinyl headboard beside the maple night table with a lamp beyond the clock radio, my built-in bookcase framing the window of the knotty pine room, arching above the Formica desk where I did my homework.

Memory of a childhood dream returned. Looking outside I saw a bald man with glasses lurking in the garden beneath my window. I called my parents, but they could not see the man. That they could not see was frightening. I fell asleep in this bed and awoke to hear people in the other room. Arising and going to the door, I saw the backs of my parents as they observed the man sitting at the dining room table, across the living room, typing on my father’s portable Remington. I pointed. “That’s the man, Mom, Dad.” My mother turned to me, smiled, raised her finger to her lips and said, “Shhhh!”

“Richie, are you up? Mr. Ashmore will be waiting in about an hour.” My mother’s voice. Young and strong. I knew where I was and approximately when. I worked part-time at a congressional office on Capitol Hill from 1966 to 1967, taking college classes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It must be Tuesday or Thursday. Sometimes the neighbor across the street gave me a lift downtown in his VW Beetle. The morning paper in the dining room should provide the exact date. Ah, November 10, 1966. The folks in the office would be ecstatic today following the GOP victory on Tuesday. And, Dad. Dad lives for another six months before dying of a massive heart attack on the first hole of Native Spring Country Club. I did not see my father, but the paper had been read. Dad worked long, hard hours. I felt that contributed to his early death.

I shaved, showered and dressed, wearing a coat and tie despite frequent manual labor, cleaning the supply closet or moving file cabinets. Every man on Capitol Hill wore a coat and tie. After a quick breakfast of orange juice and corn flakes with milk, I brushed my teeth, careful not to soil my tie. I called “Goodbye. See you tonight” to my mother, still showering. I missed kissing her on the cheek, savoring the familiar body smell from long ago. After walking outside and slamming the door behind me to ensure it closed, I walked down the front concrete pavement toward the curb. Ashmore’s VW Beetle spewed exhaust as it heated. I greeted my neighbor and seated himself for the ride, between 20 and 40 minutes depending upon traffic on North Capitol Street. Ashmore, known as the neighborhood gossip, rattled on in endless sentences. I daydreamed as the driver chattered, occasionally interrupting the reverie to respond to a question. I had a lot to think about, processing the implications of awakening to my life 25 years earlier.

How could my 44-year-old self operate in my 19 year old life without irrevocably changing the future? Considering the butterfly effect, could I save my father’s life, extending it beyond age 45. I was the same age as Dad, both 44. There were no statin drugs in 1966, or precursors to address high cholesterol. My father had begun the popular Air Force exercise program, totally insufficient to his current health. One thing alone might give my father a chance to survive until medical technology made his inherited tendency to cardiovascular disease manageable. If I convinced my father to take a daily aspirin, the inevitable heart attack might avoid instant fatality.

Ashmore dropped me off near Union Station before proceeding West toward his law offices on E Street. I turned back across the Mall and Capitol grounds toward the new Rayburn Office Building, walking briskly, shivering in the cool November weather. I disdained all but the most necessary outer garments, the coat and tie sufficiently burdensome, a jacket and scarf against the cold. Arriving at the second floor office, I saw Marian stationed at her desk. Short, displaying a beehive hairstyle that added some height, the friendly Kansan sported an officious veneer that masked her personal warmth. Today promised an easy six hours of filing. Staff typed every response to a constituent on a 3-part manifold in their IBM Selectrics. The white copy filed alphabetically by the constituent’s last name. The yellow copy went into a subject file by date.

Staff gathered in the reception area as they arrived, greeting one another and discussing the day’s work, except for Dan O’Reilly. The dour policy analyst sat at his desk researching trade with the Soviet Union. There were the Müller couple, middle aged Christian conservatives, as well as Margaret, married to Melvin Laird’s Administrative Assistant. Five years older than me, Diana, whose well-tailored dresses flattered a figure not needing flattery, arrived last. She had an eternal tan and a fetching smile, with a natural effervescence as she bubbled, “I met this guy last night and he really snowed me.”

“I don’t blame him.”

My 44-year-old self responded, to the surprise of the others. Diana blushed. The group quietly disbanded. Diana looked at me; I winked.

A few minutes later she asked, “Were you flirting with me?”

“No, I wouldn’t do that at the office. How about if I buy you lunch on Tuesday and you can tell me about the new guy?

“I’ll think about it and let you know.”

I did not know what I answered in the past, unable to duplicate forgotten conversations. I did not respond with a wink, so the future had been altered. I did not care. At least I had not drooled helplessly, I had 25 years earlier.

The congressman came in later, flashing boyish charm at age 50, greeting all of the staff. Earnest, conservative, and hard-working, he died three years later of a heart attack as had his father. I obsessed about their deaths most of the day, particularly as I left, the staff putting out snacks of cold sausage and cheese with crackers, higher in cholesterol and saturated fat than any conceivable alternative, for the Marching and Chowder Society, a group of conservative Republican members.

After work I exited the Rayburn building turning back up Constitution Avenue to the Federal Triangle to catch a bus toward home, thinking about Diana and about my father. I had suggested lunch the following Tuesday, not only because she likely had lunch plans today, but to buy myself time to consider how far I wanted to take my wink. Not doubting that I could “snow her” and fulfill my teenage fantasies, I wanted certainty before irrevocably and purposefully altering the future. Similar considerations marked thoughts about my father. Both were part of the same question, consequences of the same answer.

The sun had set when I arrived home. Before entering, I circled the house, squinting through the darkness for memories lost. I viewed the gardens I had reluctantly weeded, passed the forsythia hedge that brightened spring with a cheerful yellow, turned back toward the umbrella clothes line that yielded fresh smelling clothing and sheets, its loose line jingling in the autumn breeze, back toward the butterfly bushes in front that attracted bright-winged quarry I chased with a net. I opened the front door with the key I had found that morning, beside my wallet containing my first driver’s license.

The kitchen fluorescent illuminated a note on the table. “We’re having dinner with the London’s at the club tonight. You can reheat the spaghetti in the fridge for dinner.” I loved my mother’s spaghetti, so I put it in a sauce pan on the gas stove with a little extra water to avoid scorching it. After dinner I turned on the TV, tuning in to the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, discussing the election and Vietnam. After Star Trek, I turned off the TV, brushed my teeth, and showered before bed.

I retired to my bedroom, examining the bookcases, fingering the books there, the ones that were formative, that had taken me beyond my teen years. Some were old when purchased, musky with mildew. I inhaled nostalgia. They were mostly political, mostly conservative, reflecting Dad’s views. The rugged individualism of movement conservatism held special appeal to the post-adolescent youth of that past. Picking up my copy of Lao-tsu’s Tao Te Ching, I opened it to a random page. “Too much success is not an advantage; do not clatter like chimes of jade.”

After a long day, physically and emotionally draining, I turned back toward the bed to await the return of my parents. My questions had become clearer, along with my answers. I dismissed my misguided concern about timelines. Not God determining the future of all humankind but a 44-year-old man trapped in a mystery, I could not remember what I had said and done the first time around. My flirtation with Diana had altered the timeline if I enjoyed such power. I could have lunch with her or not, see her outside the office or not. Equivalent outcomes, just the stuff of life. If true of Diana, then doubly true of Dad. I would advise him to take a daily aspirin. My father would take the advice or reject it. If he took the advice, it would either stave off a fatal heart attack or not.

I remembered that Dad had attended all of my little league games, that Mom had milk and cookies waiting when I returned from school. They could dance at the club on a Thursday night. They did not let work, a means to an end, interfere with their joyous relationship. Happy with life in a small house with a large heart, happiness that made Dad’s early death doubly painful, they lived and rejoiced in each other.

Whatever tomorrow brought, I could appear in the public library at the day and time I knew, finding Janelle on the day we met. Along the way I would use hindsight to avoid some of the friction. We could buy a smaller house in a less trendy neighborhood with a smaller mortgage. We could avoid some expenses, along with the need to work long hours to pay for them. When the time came, Janelle and I could discuss the work and home life tradeoffs, decide mutually upon the best course. And, if we could not decide, a marriage counselor could help us address the right questions. Without further thought or awareness, I drifted into sleep.

I awoke in a darkened room. I heard soft snoring beside me. Janelle? Probably. I hoped so. We had a lot to discuss today. I reached for my cell phone and quickly found it. The screen read 6:00 a.m.

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