Evening was coming on as they pulled onto Ciriquito Street. The shutters on all the beach bungalows and flower kiosks had opened to the first breath of an evening breeze. The air was dense with the musk of orchids.Part 1 Part
2 Part 3
This was five years earlier; La Jetée was a strip of bungalows, caught between the highway and the beach. Mr. Sunquist remembered thin times. The tourists had bypassed La Jetée for the more developed resorts down the beach. The only money in the town came from the nurseries across the highway, and service jobs in the hotels south of Kleege's Beach. Every evening the streetcars would be full of people in half-undone housecleaning uniforms. Head waiters from the lesser restaurants would hang from the doors, swigging pilfered wine bottles and calling out insults as they passed each other.
And everyone ended up in the tiny patio at Sonny's.
Here was the Sonny's that the Sunquists never tired of. Sonny's Seafood Chowder Bar was an open courtyard, an old banyan tree, gnarled as knuckles, a cast-concrete bar patterned with ridiculous wood grain. Sonny Himself was whip-thin these days. With ashy skin and freckles and a wide grin that seemed somehow more charming for its insincerity.
He was not charming tonight. He was eating Spanish peanuts out of the bar dishes, which is what he did when he was nervous. His eyes were like black ice and he kept checking his watch.
A door behind the bar led out into an alley that ran from the street to the beach. People passed in and out carrying guitars and tambales and a set of wide-mouthed clay jugs, each one painted with "Jug Breakers" on the sideBobby Shelbourne's band.
Sonny glared at every kid who passed through that door. He pointed to his watch. They scuttled off to the stage like roaches caught in a kitchen light.
Bobby Shelbourne had played here every Thursday night for most of the summer, but anyone could see the blow-up that was coming. Sonny Scorzy was a congenial host, but he was hell as an employer. He hated lateness, even when he was paying no money. Bobby Shelbourne had a star's concept of time, even though he made no money. Sonny Scorzy hated that.
On this night, only one person was exempt from Sonny's evil eye. Even now, Mr. Sunquist lost his breath at the sight of her. That golden hair. Those exotic eyes. Sonny had saved her his own chair, right at the end of his beloved bar. She took it with this air of modest expectancyshe was gracious and patient as Sonny wiped off the peanut skins and beer. But it never occurred to her to sit elsewhere.
Mr. Sunquist still loved the way she said things and then covered her mouth with her hand, as if surprised by her own sense of humor. He loved the careful, prim way she crossed her ankles. He loved her dubious smile as young Billy Lee Sunquist slid in next to her.
Mr. Sunquist wondered how much it would take to impress a girl like Melanie Everett now. How much had he spent on that account rep from Loach & Widell? Not including lunch at that expensive bistro she had recommended? Billy Lee Sunquist had held his knowledge cheaply when he'd lived in La Jetée, and given it away for the asking.
"Here," Billy Lee said to the young woman struggling with the fruit that Sonny had put out for her. "You wanna know how to eat a mango, I'll show you how to eat a mango."
"I'm with someone," she said, and nodded toward a little door into the alley, where Bobby Shelbourne and his Jug Breakers were tuning up.
Billy Lee Sunquist laughed at the caution on her face. He held up his hands. "I'm just showing you how to eat a mango." He took the fruit from her hand, salted it, dusted it with cayenne pepper, and slipped it down his throat. He licked his fingers one by one and gave her a lascivious grin.
Mrs. Sunquist gave her husband a secret smile. "You remember what you said to me?"
Mr. Sunquist claimed he did not. Mrs. Sunquist said she did not believe he didn't remember. Out on the patio, Billy Lee Sunquist whispered in Melanie Everett's ear. She grew big-eyed and aghast. She gave Billy Lee a slap on the shoulder, and then said something under her breath that made him laugh and made her cover her mouth with her hand.
Mr. Sunquist gripped his wife's hand. This trip was already working changes on her. That sturdy quiet she had acquired over the lean years of their middle age, that had melted to the shyness he remembered so well. He would have shared this moment with the world.
Bobby came out with his nickel-topped Dobro guitar. Roger Swann hunkered down next to him with some squat Caribbean drum between his knees. They were a team in those days, Bobby and Roger. If Bobby played guitar, Roger would be there with the drums.
There was this trombone player that neither of the Sunquists remembered. He nudged Bobby Shelbourne. He motioned toward his girl and the young man sitting next to her.
Perhaps he had a look of mischief. If so, he would be disappointed. Bobby Shelbourne saw Bill Sunquist leaning close to Melanie. He grinned and shook his finger, school-marm style. Billy laughed. Melanie gave him a girl-slug and nodded toward her boyfriend on the stage See? I told you.
Everybody knew each other at Sonny's. Everything was easy.
The music started. Jug-band blues, simple and irresistible. Everybody on the patio pushed forward under the gnarled banyan tree. They sang along to the songs they knew. They shoulder-danced to the songs they didn't know. They ate mangoes and papayas and drank fermented sidra from terra-cotta jugs.
Then it came time for this walking blues, "Limousine Blues." Billy Lee Sunquist liked this song. He wasn't sure yet, but he was thinking about incorporating it as his personal theme.
He threw back his head at the first note. His face split into a wide grin. "My song!" he cried. "Bobby remembered my song!"
Melanie was still wiping mango pulp from her fingers as he took her hand. "Ohh no," she was saying as he led her out in front of the band. "Ohh no."
There, in front of God and her boyfriend and everybody they knew, Billy Lee Sunquist and Melanie Everett danced some imaginary swing that they knew only from watching Tex Avery cartoons.
Mr. Sunquist felt his wife draw near. She asked him if he knew why they were here. He put his arm around her; he knew. "This is a cute moment together. Look at us there." He laughed at his younger iteration. Billy Lee Sunquist was barely more than a slouch and a lazy smile. "We were so poor," he said.
"You might have been a billionaire for the way you acted. I was so impressed with you." She looked so long and hard at the young couple she might have been trying to imprint this scene forever in her mind. "This is the moment I fell in love," she said.
Mr. Sunquist tried to remember the moment, what he was thinking. He couldn't. Maybe he too had been in love. Mr. Sunquist laughed as he realized it.
As they walked out to the car, he offered to take her to see Piecziznski, the chess master. But something had gone out of the mood. Perhaps this last moment had been a miscalculation? Mr. Sunquist decided they'd seen enough for their first day of vacation. He turned the car back up the highway for their hotel.
Mrs. Sunquist asked him about Roger Swannback in that first iteration of Sonny's, he should have recognized them. It had been just a few years since they'd all seen each other, had they changed so much?
They fell into a foolish argument about Roger Swann, and why hadn't he recognized them? Mr. Sunquist wanted to laugh, except that underneath it all, the argument wasn't foolish. And somehow it wasn't really about Roger Swann.
Arguing, they missed the Hotel Mozambique. They drove south, beyond even the present iteration of La Jetée. Mr. Sunquist looked around to realize they had gone down the road, on to South Beachinto the future. They became quiet as they realized that nothing around them looked familiar.
No one ever came out to this end of the T-Line highway. Like one of those weighty popular art novels, South Beach was a place on every tongue, but rarely experienced in person. Everybody knew someone who had risked all to catch some glimpse of themselves in a new and unimagined place in their own lives. Always some friend, some relative. Never the person telling the story. Always the tale had some ghastly, amusing outcome.
They were well and truly lost when they reached the first town south of the Present Iteration. Mrs. Sunquist hesitated, but they were running low on power, and she had to use the bathroom again.
"Let's do it," cried Mr. Sunquist, his middle-aged timbre catching some of that old devilish sway. "Let's take a chance and see what we run into down here in The Future."
Mrs. Sunquist looked uneasy. But she would not be outdone by her husband. Laughing together, they swung off the T-Line to get directions from the future back to the present.
Another building cycle was coming to La Jetée. All of the old orchid stands that had been on Noon Street and then replanted on Meridian Street were being uprooted again for a tract of old-style bungalow rows. The artist's conception reminded Mr. Sunquist of places he had lived. He wondered if this would be one of his investments.
No mention of the temporal anomaly. Was that no longer considered a draw? The only connection to the town they had left back in the gloom of fog and quantum wave functions was a tag at the bottom of the sign:
ENQUIRE WITH MR. ROBERT SHELBOURNE.
"Look at this," Mrs. Sunquist said. "They're even tearing down the buildings I hated to make way for new."
Mr. Sunquist knew he should be irate. Bobby Shelbourne hustled his phony nostalgia in the one place where nostalgia was useless. Somehow, he could do nothing but envy the man's gall.
They found an open-air market down the street. Palm fronds covered the porch, implying some sort of tropical oeuvre. Nearer the road were the hydrogen pumps, and electrical-charge outlets, and gasoline for the hybrids. As Mr. Sunquist started into the hydrogen lane, his wife grabbed his wrist and pointed across the street.
Their own car was parked at the curb, as if the occupants had gone for a walk over the chalk-white dunes to the ocean.
The Sunquists stared in astonishment. It was indeed their car, only the paint had faded to a dried-out coral. The seats had been left to the salt air and the sun till they had rotted open.
Someone had half-pulled an old beach blanket across the over-ripened seat cushions. An insignia on the blanket commemorated the Mer Noire regatta, fourteen years hence. The blanket looked as if it had been in the sun a couple of years even beyond that.
Mr. Sunquist thought for a moment. He realized what it had to mean. "It's our car all right, but we've passed it on to our child. This is just the sort of thing we would do."
Mrs. Sunquist looked doubtful. "Sixteen years from now? We'll have this car sixteen years from now?"
"It surely wouldn't be us." Mr. Sunquist cast a melodramatic stare toward Mrs. Sunquist. "Are we down on the beach somewhere? Should we go look?"
Mrs. Sunquist had given over the need to match her husband dare-for-dare. "Let's just get some power and go," she said.
Mr. Sunquist wanted to egg her on a little. "Are you sure? We might be out there. On the beach. Living."
"This isn't funny," she said. "Let's just get the power and go."
Mr. Sunquist might have pushed a little harder but for the baby.
"You're lucky," he told her. He went up to pay for the fuel. She followed along to find a bathroom.
Around the corner from the pump island was a fruit stand and a cashier. As they approached, they heard a gravelly voice. "You know what you put on those? No, not sugar." Chesty laughter. "Thing's already sweet. Why would you put sugar on it? No, you know what they do in Mexico? They put salt on their mangos. A little cayenne pepper. Here."
Mr. and Mrs. Sunquist traded looks. An afternoon of chasing the ghosts of memory had left them unprepared for their role as someone else's ghost. They asked each other in that wordless language of married couples if they should go, but neither of them moved.
Mr. Sunquist felt his throat dry up. He thought for a moment. Was he sure he wanted to see himself like this? He grew impatient with his own timidity. What would happen, anyway? Would they blow up? Some sort of mutual annihilation, as if they were both opposing nuclear particles?
They stepped into the back of the cashier's line as casually as they could manage.
He was with a young girl. She had caramel-colored hair, like Mrs. Sunquist's had been when she had been a student. That same lithe waist. Those legs.
This is my daughter, Mr. Sunquist realized. The lust in him should have shamed him, but it merely made him furtive.
The store clerk flipped a light on so the old man could see what he was doing with that mango. A reflection appeared in the counter glass. Mr. Sunquist stared in fascination at the face of a tired satyr.
"We were such scoundrels when we were your age."
"Who's that?" the young woman frowned at the yellow fruit coming apart in her fingers. Her mind was a million years down the T-Line Highway.
"Here. Let me show you something. Over here to the northwest." He was so casual about the way he put his arm around the girl's waist. He aimed her toward a dark smudge along the knife-edge of the horizon, it was the most natural thing in the world.
"Who were you such scoundrels with, Billy?"
"If you look over this way," the old man said, "you can see the actual heat death of the universe." He was trying hard to instill his voice with a sense of wonder that life had not held for him in a very long time. The young woman followed his arm.
Mr. Sunquist was shocked at the resemblance she had to his wife. The dark, sloe eyes, the long, caramel-blond hair, the mobile mouth.
"It looks more like fog," she observed with adolescent irony.
"Can't see it with the naked eye. Somebody set a radio telescope pointing that way. Came back with dead air. Nothing."
The girl nodded. She understood: The cosmic background radiation. It was supposed to be evenly distributed throughout the universe. "Gee, that's interesting." She slurped mango slices.
The old man leaned close as if he wanted to steal a kiss. The girl smiled back at him, What? The soft light of her trust set him back. He looked away down the beach, as if uncertain what to do.
She asked him what he was thinking. He ran his hand up and down her arm, elbow to shoulder as he considered his answer.
"I was thinking of a moment from my life a long time ago," he answered. "I was on a patio, dancing with a girl who looked very much like you. We were both a little drunk, and her boyfriend was playing for us, and everyone was friends, you know? Just. Friends. And right now, I was thinking that may have been the sweetest moment of my life."
"It must be nice," the girl offered, "having a lifetime of memories like that. I wish I had one moment I could look back on."
The old Sunquist laughed, shook his head. "No, it's terrible," he said. "You spend the rest of your life trying to find that moment again, and it's never where you thought." He paused, as if he'd only just heard his own words. "It's amazing what a person will do to recapture one moment of peace. Amazing and terrible."
Something in his tone made the girl back away. But somehow she was still in his arms, and in turning, she had presented her face to him.
He kissed her hard on the mouth. The girl pushed him back. For a moment, her chin bunched up and her cheeks reddened as if she might cry, or pummel the old man to the ground.
"Dammit," she said. "Damn it." Her hands went up in exasperation. An impulse took hold of her. She ran up and slugged him in the arm, dared him to respond.
The old Sunquist could do nothing but stare at her in stupid love. A moment of silence; then she stalked away down the beach. He squeezed his lips between his fingers. He squinted in anguish. He paced around in a little circle of perplexity, so that Mr. Sunquist could not help feeling sorry for him.
He called after the girl, laughing heartily as if it had all been a joke; she made an obscene gesture over her shoulder.
The present-tense Mr. Sunquist became aware of a profound silence directly behind him. He waited as long as he could before turning around.
Mrs. SunquistMelaniewas gone.
He put his fingers to his nose the way he did whenever he had to steady his vision after too much bourbon. He thought, this is ridiculous. How can I be blamed for something that hasn't even happened yet? Our child isn't even born. I don't even know for certain it will be a girl.
But in his heart, he knew it was not ridiculous. He knew himself well enough to know it was entirely likely. He simply couldn't believe Mrs. Sunquist would not forgive him. He had been forgiven all his life, hadn't he?
He pushed himself up to the top of the sand dune and searched the beach. He saw the girl stalking away along a concrete sea wall, making angry little skips with her palm against the rough stone blocks.
He couldn't find Mrs. Sunquist anywhere.
He realized the old man was beside him. He wondered what he should do. He had heard of people meeting themselves, of course. One always heard stories. He just couldn't remember how any of those stories turned out.
When he could stand it no longer, he turned to the old man: "You know what you've done?" he asked.
The man looked shocked, like a theater patron suddenly addressed from the stage.
"You're not supposed to"
"You couldn't keep your hands off your own daughter? Damn it."
In truth, he was not very angry. Mr. Sunquist was more overcome with weariness. In his weariness, he saw his older persona in a cool and distant light, the way one sees one's parents after while. He wasn't addressing himself anymore. He was addressing a sad old man who had lost track of things somehow.
He crouched down to take the old man's hand. It was bloated, the skin shiny and taut. "I'm sorry," he said, "It's just" He paused. How to put this? "That's our daughter. Do you understand? There are some things I just can't do. If I do these things, there will be no limits for me at all." He looked into the cracked old face for some sign he was getting through.
"Daughter? What do you take me for? That's not our daughter." The old man laughed. There was a certain malicious strain in the reedy voice. Even now, he wasn't so different. "We don't have a daughter. We have a son, Jeremy, but I haven't seen him in five years. You don't know this yet, do you? Sorry. Shouldn't have opened my mouth, I guess."
Mr. Sunquist sighed; of course, this man would know how Mr. Sunquist longed for a son. He would use that knowledge to win sympathy, emotional leverage. Mr. Sunquist wondered if this was the man he truly was destined to become. What a pathetic and self-serving old liar.
"Come on, now," he said as gently as possible. "I recognized her eyes. I know her cheekbones. The resemblance is too strong. You can't tell me this was just some kid you picked up."
The old satyr leaned close. Mr. Sunquist held his breath at the tang of stale bourbon. "Of course it looks like Melanie," he hissed through his gaping teeth. "It is Melanie."
Mr. Sunquist felt something clammy and soft in the pit of his stomach. "You're not supposed to..."
"I was lonely," he said. "Mrs. Sunquist left me a couple years agoleft us, I should say. Left us. I got my car, I took a ride down the T-Line Highway." The rheumy eyes squinted defiantly. "Look at you, you're so self-righteous. What are you doing here? Huh? What are you doing here?"
"You're lying." Mr. Sunquist backed away. Melanie had to be somewhere on this beach; she had been right behind him a moment ago. He called out for her, but his words were caught up in a sudden gust of wind and scattered across the beach like sea birds.
"Lying? To you? Why would I lie to you of all people?"
Way down by the waterline, Mr. Sunquist saw the young girl his wife had been. She looked back at the sound of her name. Was that recognition in her eyes? Mr. Sunquist entertained the notion of following after her. But she was not his wife and he was not really Billy Lee Sunquist. Not her Billy Lee Sunquist. She turned away up the beach even as he debated his next move, and then she was gone.
"I would know if you'd messed about in my past. Mrs. SunquistMelaniewould have said something."
"Times change. Have you talked to Melanie recently?"
"You can't just drive down the road and change my life. You can't do that."
"Screw your life. I was lonely."
"You can't do that," he repeated fervently, hopefully.
He left the old man on the top of the dune and started back for his car. He found it sitting quietly in its refueling lane. The passenger-side door remained slightly ajar, just as his wife had left it.
He walked out in the street and called for her. He had to be wrong. She was here somewhere. She was confused; maybe she hated him a little bit. But she was still his wife. He couldn't have changed time. One didn't do such things in La Jetée. It just wasn't done.
He ran down the street, backward in time, calling for her as he went. Among the empty cliffs where beach hotels and seafood restaurants and temporal observatories had once been, gulls cocked their heads to peer down at him.
He pulled up, gasping at the highway on-ramp. All right, he told himself. Something terrible had happened. But it wasn't too late to fix things. Melanie was still there for him. She was a little ways down the T-Line Highway, that was all.
He would find her as she had been. He would protect her from that sad old ghost. And she would love him more than ever. He would see to it. He would be good to her, and listen to what she said. He would love the woman she was now. And the memories of the people they had been? He would let them remain beautiful memories, nothing more.
Headlights rolled across his shoulders. He turned and stumbled. The car rolled right up to his knees. He thought he was dead.
The driver was a woman with shoulder-length caramel-colored hair and exotically slanted eyes. The passenger was a sad-eyed little man. He stepped out to help Mr. Sunquist off the pavement.
"Are you all right? We didn't even see you. We got lost coming up the T-Line Highway and missed our city. We're just trying to find our way out of here. Trying, you know, not to see more than we should..."
Mr. Sunquist looked at his wife. Her face was clouded with the blank concern for a stranger she had almost killed.
He raised his hands to plead with her through the windshield. He started to ask her, Have I changed so much?
"Roger," she said to her husband, "ask him if he needs to go to the doctor. He looks like he's in shock." She started to slip out from behind the wheel. Her husband waved her back in the car.
"Don't do that, Honey. Just stay there."
Mr. Sunquist saw by the way she moved that she was extremely pregnant.
"Here." Roger Swann peeled a twenty-five-dollar bill off his money clip and stuffed it in Mr. Sunquist's hand. "Go on now, fella." He glanced back at his wife in a meaningful way. "She's having a baby," Roger Swann confided. "I just want to keep her happy."
Mr. Sunquist looked down at the bill wadded up in his palm. When he looked back, the Swanns were already driving away.
He wanted to say something, but he couldn't think what. He watched them pull around, back onto the T-Line Highway going south.
He ran back to the car. He used the twenty-five-dollar bill to pay for his charge. The truth, he realized, was back in one of those cities along the beach. All he had to do was find where his life had diverged from its pathfind that moment of clarity. Wasn't that what he'd always come back to La Jetée to do? He would make it right.
Fifteen minutes up the highway, the towers of La Jetée, like a city sculpted from thoroughly burned ash, rose in the heat of a morning Mr. Sunquist couldn't remember seeing.
He pulled off the highway and wept.