The Boiler

Andrew Nicholls

SLOW TIME


I was fishing with Reb Milch over a hole in the ice the weekend they announced it. Time was dragging for me anyway, but without the whole dire-implications-for-the-planet aspect. Isobel had moved out the previous March for reasons I kept staring into the jagged black fish hole trying to comprehend. We were on friendly terms by phone and email. I sent her a birthday present in November at her parents’ house, a shower curtain with smiling caterpillars and butterflies (hint hint, I can change). But I didn’t know what to do with myself, how to feel inside my skin. We’d had tensions, but I never thought we were at a breaking point. She’d talked in bed one night about how many eggs she had left, she figured around two hundred and four, and I’d made the mistake of checking her math instead of listening to what she was really saying.

I write science fiction because I want to see what life would be like if you could fix things. Or if you could go back and not make the mistakes in the first place.

Coming home, Reb turned on the truck radio and we heard a jokey story like they sometimes run to liven up the news. They’re usually about a farmer robbing a bank with a pig under his arm, or someone making pillows out of their kids’ hair – something to make you shake your head and feel your own craziness maybe isn’t fatal.

“If you’re driving right now,” the radio woman said, “your dashboard clock might be off, but not because of the common reasons you’d expect, like owner neglect or drink spills!”

Reb’s digital pickup clock said 10:49. It felt like mid-afternoon. We’d gotten out before daylight to hit the first ferry and find some place where the water needed drilling. The radio woman said scientists in New York and California had noticed plane schedules in other parts of the country were sliding out of whack. Later they’d show a split-screen on TV of clocks in major cities and when they zoomed on the second hands, you could see some were dawdling.

A week later, my sister announced she and our dad were building a bomb shelter at the garage. Evie is a large and difficult woman. I told her there was no bomb. “A time shelter then,” Evie said, rolling her eyes, “with its own power and food and magazines.”

“Underground?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “We’re gonna dig a hole in the ceiling and I’ll throw him up.”

“How are you going to make that big a hole underground?” I asked. The island’s mostly rock. They didn’t have to, Evie said, they were converting Pit # 4, the long deep trough the mechanics stood in.

Before buying the garage, our father, the late-starter, was in the Navy, where he said there was too much running around for his liking. As soon as Evie was a (stout, opinionated) teenager he’d pretty much let her run his life, acquiescing in all her plans about how he should invest Mom’s life insurance money, redecorate the house, fix or not fix his teeth. It was hard to remember that Dad had once been young and dynamic, that he’d surveyed our half-a-town on the island for what business he’d best fit, and decided: garage. It didn’t even seem like a decision anymore. It felt like one more dead fact that lives are built on like lighthouses.

They’d both already read all the magazines they were going to take – my sister passed hers to Dad, indicating to him what to read with red stickies – so I couldn’t imagine how they’d be entertained in the timeless winter ahead. You just leave us to worry about that, Evie said, with a look that said, Wait a month, you’ll be begging. They dropped four street-repair plates stolen from who knows where over the pit, and welded a metal hatch near the steps. Evie got a rack of Peeps candy that from across the room looked like a blow-up photo of corn on the cob.

What about showers? I asked. Pussy, she said.

December was all confusion. GPS started sending people looking for holiday parties into storefront Christmas displays and abandoned drive-ins. Commercial airplanes were landing in places like Dearborn. Talk shows did jokes, but nothing helpful followed the jokes. What it meant, what we should do. My dad was confused. “This mean we set our clocks forward or back?” He blinked at me from his couch with the shortwave on his chest, as if he’d weathered layoffs and wars and would bob atop this latest wave like a fishing float and see where he fetched up. “Do we get more sleep or less?”

My first inclination was to call Isobel at her mom’s and see if she was okay. Ten months since I’d seen her. Ten eggs.

The ship’s trithium renormalizer was still hammering in its futile cycles, trying to

I prepared for the incoming barrage of deadly quantum

The battle

Then, three groups of university experimenters flukily discovered their clocks were in synch with the international ones. Time is measured by a cesium atom in Switzerland (the time-deniers went nuts, these being foreign atoms). After 9,192,631,770 vibrations of this atom, a second has passed. This is a degree of accuracy that needs adjustment by only a second every 138 million years. So, basically, no adjustment.

The only thing the correct-clock people could think of that they’d done differently from the wacky-GPS parts of the country was actively think about the problem. They put an atomic clock in a station wagon and drove it to a remote part of the country. Sure enough, the cesiums inside it started dragging their tiny asses. More experiments confirmed it: time had become dependent on people actively thinking about it. An article in, ironically, Time Magazine said:


Scientists have long known that, at the quantum level, particles change as we observe them. Now, researchers say, time itself is doing the same.

We conscious beings had to start pushing time along, they said, to keep that big old hoop rolling, or it’d slow down and rattle to a stop like a dime on a diner counter.

And here I am writing a novel about a battle for mining rights on an asteroid.


In his rec room, Reb Milch talked about leaving town before “they” closed the gates. I asked him what did he mean, closing gates? Who were “they”? I’d never thought of him as politically astute. He twirled the forward line of his foosball hockey players and whacked the little black plastic puck off the table. “You’re the sci-fi writer,” he said. “Figure it out.” He left the next Saturday. I tried to apply myself to the question, but couldn’t get the perspective. Large-scale systems elude me. Current misery, small irritations that gain clarity in low-angle twilight, I can see just fine.


They asked us to think about the passage of time each day to keep it moving. There was a website where you could play a game about watching a duck paddle in a pond (or, for adults, hot male + female bartenders circle a bar serving drinks) and click when you saw them pass Go. This was how we could help.


The papers printed the scientists’ calculations. Nobody I knew claimed to understand it except for Frank Hellmut from high school, who’d also claimed since he was twenty that he was going to move to Indonesia and change his name to Batman.

Of course some towns told the government to go screw, like they had in 1883 when Washington imposed Standard Time. Back then the country had over a hundred wildcat time zones. Trains on their own made-up schedules were crashing head-on. Nobody really knew what time it was anywhere until someone drew those long vertical stripes and forced everyone into chronological line. Then Daylight Savings: another kettle of fish, disputed wherever people were isolated and gun-proud. Not hard to imagine how those places felt about us making yet another change to bring us into synch with a piece of vibrating chlorine in France, as Evie put it. Cesium in Switzerland, I told her. Tomato, to-MAH-to, she said, toting a sack of Red Vines to the time shelter.

I punched-in at Ace Hardware and worked in the evenings on my novel trilogy. I watched the cartoon duck go around the pond and wondered if any real duck in the winter ever got stuck under the ice. You’d have to move pretty slowly to get caught like that, I thought. You’d have to be one stupid duck.

There was a live national call-in for questions and to allay panic. I went to Herb’s Bar with Evie to watch it on the satellite. Answering our questions were a slightly frazzled physicist named Chrissie in a long black dress that I kept expecting to see the price tag on, and an Indian man in his thirties, the pronounceable version of whose name was Dr. Jamber. The picture occasionally turned into little frozen lozenges.

What if I personally work on moving time along, but my family won’t do it because they don’t believe in it?

Dr. Jamber said his best guess was, if through the efforts of everyone in their region they were spared time-dilation, the caller’s scoff-science family would reap the rewards along with the hard workers, even though they were, he said, hanging on the back of the wagon and not helping to push.

I’ve tried moving time along, but everyone at work says it looks like I’m taking a shit.

Next caller, said Chrissie. I’d skipped dinner and was getting drunk. I want my wife back, I told the TV. Shut up, Evie said, this is important. I said I didn’t care what was important. Important is relative, I said. I reached for the nut bowl and she put her hand over it. Get your own, she said, or I’ll break your fingers, I seriously will.

A man who sounded like a dustbowl photograph asked, So let me get this straight. If your community participates in this time-pushing, and one afternoon you travel west…

West, all right, go on, Chrissie said. She had plump arms inside her TV-appearance dress; she looked like a woman waiting outside a fitting room who was ready to give up and go shop somewhere else.

… you’re telling me if you come to a town that isn’t time-pushing, in that place it’ll be earlier? – Chrissie was nodding – so if you look at the setting sun as you go west, it’ll be coming towards you, headed east?

Chrissie pretended her thumbs were the town and the sun and tried to visualize the question. I did the same until Evie slapped my hands. “Difficult to imagine,” said short, neat Dr. Jamber, “but quantum physics also is hard to picture, correct?” He smiled and flourished his arms. “Yet it is the truthful description of what occurs.”

Evie made a note on a pad: BOIL WATER, PUT IN JUGS.

If I bought a three-hour candle in Missoula and took it to New York, how long would it burn?

No matter where you burn it, Chrissie said, it will feel like three hours. But it won’t be, Dr. Jamber said excitedly. Eventually, he said, the slow-time communities’ candles as seen by the rest of the country would never go out. The people would walk like survivors wading away from their homes in floods. Darts players in bars would stand facing red and black circles of cork, hair pomping on their foreheads, tongues out in concentration, one arm up and one foot askance, forever.

I can’t install it, the First Mate told me, sobbing. They gave us the wrong dynamic capacitor, or else I’ve forgotten... His head fell on his arm. I just don’t know.

I swiftly calculated the

I just stood there.

🙂 When you see a flower bud: think what it will look like in the spring when it has bloomed!

🙂 Those living near the Grand Canyon: dwell on the millennia it took for the river to carve it through rock!

🙂 When talking to the elderly, ask them what is the longest-ago thing they can remember!

These were ways the authorities suggested we could help. Meanwhile, college students in fast cities were asking for an extra minute on exams. Wristwatches of incoming and outgoing passengers were checked and logged at airports.

Then they put up the timeblocks, a wavy string looping around the country, separating Regular Time from Slow Time.

Me, I tend to think of the moment, maybe a little bit about tomorrow if the toothpaste is low. I didn’t start writing science fiction until I’d been at Ace Hardware six years. I plan haphazardly.

I have no spirit for this. I miss Issy.

Small things with their own obstinate time-particularity became tauntingly interesting. Those spinning rims on car wheels. Roadside deer in their patchy winter coats. My 2-Hour-Off coffee maker. When I waited for my $40 to slide out of the ATM’s shuddering armpit, I wondered how long it was really taking. An hour? A year?

After a month, the pages of the mainland newspapers began to smear like they’d been run through the press too fast. Once, we got tomorrow’s paper by mistake, but everything about the islands was blurred or missing. Then they stopped coming. Ferry service went to once a day, then stopped. Internet pages loaded fast but froze. When Evie looked at me, toting her whatever towards the garage, she was all one-raised-eyebrow and lowered mouth. Catch up, she seemed to be saying. Yoo hoo back there.

When I was little, in fourth grade, I got sick on the Thursday and Friday we took long division. On Monday the other kids’ faces at recess all looked like they knew division whereas I was all, what? My parents wouldn’t ask for extra help. They believed it’d draw attention to my deficit. Mom and Dad had a running contest over who was tougher, more independent. My sister won.

*



Even before she left, Isobel’s life moved faster than mine. She had her paintings, interest groups, music, doll collection, correspondence. It was hard to stay current on the island, but she managed. She always praised my writing, but at significant times like New Year’s I’d look at how much she’d done in the last twelve months versus how I was still hanging with Reb Milch, still editing the Vorlizon Mining Trilogy, stocking the same shelves.

On Isobel’s birthday at midnight I went into our square back yard. The moon hung in the sky over the Sound the same way it had the night before and the year before that, the same shiny circle stared at by dinosaurs and cavemen and by Isobel, who’d already been twenty-nine for three hours. After breakfast I called her in Brooklyn at her parents’ house. My unused cell phone minutes had been piling up. She fondly said, Oh it’s you. I said happy birthday. Her voice was weird, speedy. She said I’d missed it, it was a week ago. Move back here, I told her, you’ll live longer. Weak joke. It feels the same speed here as there, she said. It’s not, I told her. You’re feeling an illusion. Isobel said, How do you know you’re not the one with the illusions? Isobel asks questions with no answers. Like, why aren’t I happier?


Kol-Thor,
the captain said, his shoulders heavy, I don’t know what I’ve been doing in this battle. I’m distracted by the absence of the lovely Luryita. I need you to relieve me.

I’ll try, I said. I really will. But what I’m doing now, what you see? Even this is not easy for me. What if this is all I can do?

Yesterday I went to the Post Office to mail an agent query. “One hundred and third time’s the charm,” Evie said with a mean laugh. She and Dad are settled in with a refrigerator and a 3,000-watt propane generator. The AC power from the mainland is unreliable; the 60hz started coming in at 65hz, then 70. Motors speed up, light bulbs fritz out. Evie took a blacklight poster of Jimi Hendrix down with her, and some carpet, her CDs and a fondue set.

I went out back today after work, after it was done with raining.

I looked at our frozen pond under the porch light and wondered if there were tadpoles under there, or tadpole eggs. Thousands of eggs; all they’ll need, if it ever thaws. I thought, who’ll want my stories now? Other writers in faster parts of the world have had my ideas, written them down, got them published. They’ve won awards and here I still am. Isobel could have gotten remarried and had kids this morning while I was putting the shampoo back on the wire rack. Grown old and dressed grandkids for school as I stared at contest details over my toast.

The stars overhead move faster, comets pass before you can blink. Eventually I’ll stop doing anything. I’ll be still and quiet, thinking my dark igneous thoughts.

I dream of her coming back just to visit. Looking older, but smarter, sure of herself. I’m proud of her. I was always attracted to her confidence. I identify her at the ferry ramp even though she’s in a coat I’ve never seen and looking the other way. I know it’s her by the horseshoe of summer light around her hair. Even facing away, it feels like her in a way I can’t describe. All the times I watched her leave to get groceries or go to work I never even thought of it as the back of her head. Is that crazy? It was just her, looking a different direction, looking out, away from me.

__________________

Andrew Nicholls has recent short fiction in The Santa Monica Review, New World Writing, Black Clock, Literature For Life and elsewhere. He’s a longtime TV writer with over 100 series credits and 4 Emmy nominations, and was Johnny Carson’s co-head writer on NBC’s Tonight Show from 1988 to 1992.