A Star in Time

by Mike Fiorito


“I can’t make it like this no more,” said Willy.

“You and me both,” sighed Smith.

They sat on the floor across from each other, curled up in rags and blankets. They’d woken up in their usual hideaway: the long-abandoned wire spool factory that lined the street near the river. Through the grimy, shattered windows they could see the city skyscrapers.

“Just a few more weeks of this and I’m out of here,” Willy said.

“I’ve been thinking the same,” said Smith.

“Yes, sir,” continued Willy. “I’m going to get a job, get married, and go back to my old ways.”

“This life ain’t for everyone,” agreed Smith.

“Why, I can see it now. Me all dressed up, walking to work with my briefcase, having bums polish my shoes,” said Willy. Then his face softened. He continued, shaking his head. “Well, I’d toss those bums a couple of dollars.”

“And right you should,” said Smith.

“And what you gonna do?” Willy asked. Smith rubbed his finger along a steel plank, as if trying to wipe away a secret message.

“I’m not sure what I’m going do just yet,” said Smith. “I’m thinking maybe I’m going to buy a big car, smoke cigars, and drive around with pretty women.”

“You old dog,” said Willy, smacking his hands together. “You gonna settle down?” he asked, his mouth agape, struck incredulous by Smith’s audacity.

“I ain’t the settling down type,” said Smith, his eyes suddenly distant. “I ain’t never been able to stay anywhere too long.”

“Well, ya’ been with me, ol’ buddy, for at least a year,” said Willy. Smith looked away. “And now I got used to you,” Willy said, his eyes watering. He coughed a few times into his fist. Then he straightened up, grinned, and spoke. “You ain’t looking to split out of Dodge, you old dog you, eh?” Smith started to break a slight smile. “You got some riches you ain’t telling me about?” asked Willy. “And after all this time?”

“I don’t have nothing I didn’t always have.”

“Now, what does that mean?”

“I ain’t got no riches, or nothing like that.”

“Well, howdy do, Smith,” said Willy, now serious. “If you ain’t gonna tell me what you got, you ain’t nothing.”

“See here, Willy,” started Smith. “What I’ve got is just a button that can take me places.”

“That don’t make no sense. Didn’t we run out of whiskey? You hiding your drink?”

“I ain’t had no drink.”

“Then you just crazy,” said Willy, spitting on the floor.

“Maybe I am. Maybe I am. If I weren’t crazy, I wouldn’t be out here with you, sleeping in dirty places, waking up with bugs crawling on my skin.”

“That button you talking about. Is it shiny and gold-like?” Willy asked. Smith’s eyes widened in surprise. “Yeah, I found that thing you’ve been hiding in your pockets.”

“Now you give it back to me,” said Smith, realizing Willy must have slipped it from the pouch where he kept it.

“Lookee here, I ain’t given’ it back to you until you tell me what it is,” said Willy.

“It’s just a good luck charm. Something a special lady gave me a long time ago.”

“Some special lady she must have been,” Willy said. Smith agreed, shaking his head, never taking his eyes off Willy. “Where that lady from?”

“She was a special lady from where I’d grown up, in the south.”

“That right, Smith? They speak Egyptian or something like that where you’d grown up?

“Naw, that’s just a good luck charm. A pendant.”

“Something gonna happen when I open it?”

“Just give it here, Willy.”

“Is it going to make me rich?”

“It won’t do nothing you want it to do, Willy.”

“Is that right?”

“That’s what I know.”

“Well, I’m itchin’ to see what magic that charm can do.”

“I’m saying this for your own good,” said Smith, sighing. “Hand it over.” Willy shook his head no. “Please!” Smith begged. But Willy didn’t yield.

Smith picked himself off the sooty floor, dusted his high-water pants and walked out of the dingy room. He shambled down the stairs and made his way to the street.

Willy walked over to the window and looked down to the street. He waved to Smith as if to say, Don’t be mad at me. Smith waved back goodbye.

A few hours later Smith returned. He trudged up the stairs to the old ramshackle room where they’d lived for the past month. “Willy?” he called out. His voice echoed like a pipe clanging on a steel wall. No response. He felt as empty and hollow as the room itself. Smith looked down to Willy’s usual spot. The gold button glittered in the black dust.

Smith reached down to pick up the button. He read the etchings on the gold. They were in a digital language, the language of his home planet. This pendant was hardly worth anything as a gold piece, but if you pressed the right combination of keys on the button, you traveled to another galaxy millions of light years away. If you pressed the wrong combination, you might get flung smack into an asteroid, or get sucked into a neutron star and smashed into a million little pieces.

***

Smith walked into Monroe’s Bar. He’d stopped by a few times every week, since he’d moved to town. Being new, he’d hang around at the bar, trying not to stand out too much. He had spoken to Billy, the bartender, every night he’d stopped in. Smith settled onto a barstool.

“The usual?” asked Billy.

Winking in agreement, Smith tilted his head and pointed at the Miller tap with his chin. Billy spun a fresh pint glass from the rack and pulled on the tap handle.

“How’s it going tonight?” asked Smith.

“Yeah, good,” said Billy. “Finished work?”

“That’s why I’m here,” he said.

“Well, if you’re a betting man,” Billy said, pointing to the chalkboard behind him showing the week’s football games, “you might want to join the football pool.” A bartender knows when someone’s lonely and might be looking for a way to get in on the action.

“Tell you the truth, I’m not a betting man,” said Smith. He’d overheard a few guys talking earlier that week about how Billy made a percentage of the bar sport’s pool.

“Is that so?”

“And I don’t know much about football,” admitted Smith with a frown.

“You’re joking,” replied Billy, crossing his broad arms on his chest. His arms were covered with tattoos: a Celtic cross on a hill, Jesus’s face with a teardrop of blood.

“Sadly, no,” said Smith.

“Did you drop in from another planet?” asked Billy, laughing.

“You might say so.”

Now Billy heaved with laughter, his belly jiggling up and down. Despite his bloated stomach, his arms and chest bulged with muscles.

“Well, you think about it and I’ll be back,” said Billy, lumbered away to help another customer.

As the night went on, Smith drank his pints quietly while looking up at the TV perched on the shelf over the bar. It was a Thursday night game, New York versus Dallas.

“You ready to wager ten bucks for the big cash prize?” asked Billy. Since Smith didn’t say anything, Billy pulled out the week’s lineup, showing the spread for each game. “See here, since Dallas is playing in New York, and New York has a better record so far, New York is the three-and-a-half-point favorite.” Waiting for Smith to acknowledge, Billy paused. “Got it?”

“I think so,” said Smith. “New York has to beat Dallas by more than three and a half points, right?”

“Exactly,” said Billy, trying not to sound condescending. He then went down the list with Smith, discussing each of the games. “Ok, so you’re in?” he asked.

“Ten bucks?”

“Ten bucks gets you in for the week. Seventy-five gets you in for the season,” Billy said. Smith plunked down seven tens and a five. Like most other people in the bar, Smith watched the game with rapt attention, except he was learning the rules as he watched. He slammed his fists down on the bar when his team dropped catches or missed tackles, mimicking the noisy crowd. He won that night. Dallas lost by ten points.

Smith returned to the bar on Sunday. “How you looking in the pool?” Billy asked. Smith detailed his picks, showing that he was winning. Billy joked, “See that! And you said you’re not a gambling man? Pullin’ my leg.” Smith took a long draft of Miller as soon the pint hit the bar. He noticed someone leaning over his shoulder. A woman.

“I see you know how to pick a winner,” she said.

“Well, you know, I only—”

Reaching out her hand, she said, “Name’s Claire. Claire Rodgers.”

“Smith,” he replied, wiping the beer froth from his upper lip.

“Smith what?”

“Smith. Just Smith.”

“Mysterious, aren’t we?” She looked him up and down, as if being inscrutable made him more handsome.

“Maybe I’m wanted in a few states,” he said, smiling.

“Some people aren’t wanted anywhere,” she said, sliding onto the barstool next to him.

“Where you from?” she asked. “You’re not from around here.”

She had on a lopsided smile. One eyelid closed more than the other. Pretty blue eyes. Dark black, straight hair. Bangs. He told her he was from down south.

“You don’t seem like a Southerner,” she said.

“We’re not all hillbillies. Some of us are just regular people.”

She laughed. “You’re cute for a wanted man.”

They talked long after the game was over, Smith buying drinks all night. Claire was a football fan, too. “My ex was a Dolphins fan. I watched my share of games,” she said.

“What happened?” Smith asked.

“Some things just don’t work out. It’s a long story—kind of like your name.”

“You want to get out of here?” he asked.

“What? You gonna take me home and tie me up?”

“Only if you’re lucky,” he said.

They drove back to his place in separate cars. After climbing the stairs and entering, Claire stretched out on the couch, kicking off her shoes at the heels with the tips of her toes.

“This’s a nice place.”

“All the furniture came with the apartment.”

“But where did you come from, really?” she asked, suddenly serious. “And what are you doing here?”

“I come from down south.”

“Who says that? People name a city. They also give their last name. They don’t just arrive in a small town for no reason.” She stopped speaking for a beat. “Are you in trouble of some kind?”

“Not exactly,” he said.

“Well, look, I like you. But I don’t like this talking around the bush,” Claire said.

“It’s hard for me to talk about.”

“Comes a time a man’s gotta come straight.”

“What happened with the jokes?”

“Joking time’s over now,” she said.

“You’re never going to believe me.”

“Try me,” she said, pulling out a cigarette. “You mind?” When he didn’t say anything she lit up.

“Well, you see, I’m not a numbers man, and where I’m from, we talk in numbers.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’m from far away,” he said.

“How far?”

“What if I told you I’m from another planet?”

“I’d say that just about makes sense,” Claire said. “I only fall for the crazy ones.”

“I told you you’d think I was nuts,” he said. “See, where I’m from, my planet, everyone is like one of your computers. We all have an incredible grasp of numbers, of technology.”

“Is that why you’re so good at the football scores?” she said, going along with his game.

“You don’t believe me?”

“I don’t know. Sounds like a crock, like you’re avoiding something.”

“I’m not.”

“Well then, why did you leave?”

“I’m not a numbers person. I’m a word person,” he said. “I love poetry, language, stories. I’m learning about your kind. Your people are made up of stories.”

“But you’re so good at numbers.”

“To be honest, I’m dumb at numbers compared to others from my planet. Humans just aren’t very good.”

She took a long drag on her cigarette, trying to weigh the truth of his words. “So how did you get here?”

He pulled out a tiny gold button that was as flat as a wafer. There were keys on the button inscribed with digital symbols. “See here. Just be careful. Don’t play with it. Just look.” He held it out in the palm of his hand. Claire pulled back a little.

“Smith, that’s just too much. This just can’t be.”

“Do you want to leave? I’d understand.”

“I have to think this over.”

“For what it’s worth, I like you,” he said.

“Well, I don’t know what you’re after.”

He knew that look on her face. He’d seen it before. She’d think it over—and then what?

Smith knew that he’d have to move on. She wasn’t the one. If she blabbed at the bar, probably no one would believe her. Smith was just another transient, they’d say. Another nut job. A drifter. And no one would remember him from Adam.

***

Smith arrived in a beach town after driving for a few hours toward the coast. He had the sudden urge to see the ocean. The ocean reminded him of looking out into space.

He found a winding road that led to a strip of shore. Some of the shoreline was private, marked off with signs and orange fencing. Other areas were public.

He parked the car and stepped out to stretch. It was early morning; the seagulls were circling the sky, cawing. Sunlight danced on the waves. There were bits of rocks and shells scattered along the shore. He walked down to the beach.

He took off his shoes and sat on the beach, digging his toes into the sand. The sand was cool and smooth. He looked out to the ocean. This world seemed so vast, and yet it was so tiny. Most people on this planet spent their whole lives without realizing the vastness. Despite this, humans could be complex. Though irrational, some had deep feelings and wrote glorified verse. Earthlings kill for their prophets and gods. His own kind were almost too perfect, made empty by their colossal minds. Those like him who were more compelled by words and music left for other places.

Smith saw a man walking toward him in the distance, his pants rolled up to his knees. He was holding his shoes in his hands. As the man came nearer, Smith could make out his white beard and hair. The man had a deep tan.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said the man.

Smith noticed that the man’s eyes were emerald green. “Incredible,” he answered. “Do you live around here?”

“I do now,” said the man. “I retired a few years ago.”

“Lucky, you get to wake up to this every day.”

“I’m grateful to be near the water,” said the man. He gazed far away as he spoke, as though the real answers were out there, somewhere, waiting to be found. “But, I would have preferred to enjoy this with my wife.” Smith was silent. “She died two years ago, just as we both retired. We had planned to move to the coast, travel, and live out the rest of our lives together.”

“I’m sorry,” said Smith.

“And you?” asked the man. “Did you come here to escape something? To find something?”

“Like you, I’m trying to find a place where I fit. I’ve been searching far and wide.”

“I understand. An old retired professor doesn’t fit in too easily, either. An old retired professor who lost his best friend and can’t fall in love again.”

“How long were you together?”

“Thirty years. We met in graduate school. She was smart, she was pretty, and she actually liked me,” he chuckled.

“I guess I’ve never known anything quite like that. I’ve lived most of my life as a loner,” said Smith.

“Well, a handsome young man like you should have no trouble finding someone.”

“My life is complicated.”

“I see. One of those,” said the man. “I traded in ‘complicated’ for having my arms around Rosie every night. Sometimes it felt like I was holding onto the whole world.”

“Do you regret it now?” asked Smith. He immediately wished he could take the question back. He was still learning about the depths of human irrationality.

“Not one bit.”

A flock of seagulls flew overhead, cackling. The tide now rushed in, wafting a light spray of salt-perfumed air. Smith and the man watched the scene in silence. There was ocean as far as the eye could see. It was like a picture of eternity.

“Well, my young friend,” offered the man. “I guess I’ll be heading on.”

“Nice talking to you,” said Smith.

As the man walked away, he turned back around and said, “I don’t regret any of it, not one bit,” shaking his head knowingly.

***

Smith preferred earthlings because they sang and dreamed, even the murderers and thieves.

He drove across America, over the Rocky Mountains, in the canyons of Utah and into the California desert, seeking something. He called it companionship. Making contact.

One night at a campsite in the Mojave Desert Smith met Dr. Oscar Gonzalez. Gonzalez’s Harley Davidson was parked next to Smith’s SUV. He introduced himself right away, before Smith could say anything.

“Nice bike,” said Smith, whistling with pursed lips, the light from his campfire dancing on the shiny metal surface of the bike.

“She drives like a beauty,” said Gonzalez, fiddling with the telescope he’d set up near his Harley.

Gonzalez had curly grey hair. He was short, and about sixty years old. He wore a checkered sports jacket with suede patches on the elbows.

“What you looking at?” asked Smith.

“Saturn,” replied Gonzalez, twisting the lens with his thumb and index finger. “Want to see?” he added.

Smith shook his head yes. He looked the telescope up and down as he approached it, intrigued by its strange design. He’d never seen anything like this telescope; it resembled a piece of antique furniture.

His eye, now nestled into the lens chamber, Smith saw Saturn about the size of a penny in the eyepiece.

“Clear as a bell,” said Smith

Smith gazed for a minute or two, then stepped back. As if unable to wait his turn again, Gonzalez resumed his position at the telescope.

“Where’d you get this thing?” asked Smith.

“Designed and built it myself,” said Gonzalez. “Made it out of a dresser drawer, inserting a series of lenses and mirrors placed in just the right way to magnify objects as distant as planets.” The dresser drawer was turned upside down on its head.

“She’s even got her own limo,” said Gonzalez, pointing to the wagon attached to his Harley. The words Fermi’s Paradox were painted in firetruck red on the side of the wagon.

Crude, but clever, thought Smith. “Are you an astronomer?”

“I’m a mathematician,” said Gonzalez, “but I’m also an amateur astronomer.” For a moment, he looked at Smith. “I’ve always been interested in the stars and planets. I’m one of those people who measures and counts.”

“What do you mean?” asked Smith.

“My ex-wife said it was Asperger’s,” said Gonzalez, hardly looking up from the telescope.

“I can relate,” said Smith.

“You’re like that too?” asked Gonzalez.

“In a way,” answered Smith. “It’s a long story.”

“It’s all relative,” Gonzalez told him.

Smith waited a few minutes to speak while Gonzalez operated the telescope. He could tell that Gonzalez loved turning the knobs and dials on the device he’d built by hand. Earthlings had passion. They may not have been the best scientists, but they made up for it in pluck.

“Do you think you’ll find a spacemen with that thing?” asked Smith, laughing.

“Let’s just say I have a nagging suspicion that given all those stars out there,” Gonzalez ventured, adjusting the lens again, “there must be another planet that produced life. It might not be like earth. Maybe it’s an altogether different kind of planet and different kind of life.”

“You mind if I have another look?” asked Smith.

“Be my guest,” replied Gonzalez. “I’ve been waiting a long time for someone to enjoy the view from this lens. I’ve had a lot of passers-by, but no real takers.” He paused. “Where’d you say you were from?”

“I’m from the south,” said Smith.

“I thought I heard a hint of a Southern twang in your voice. Tennessee? Kentucky?”

“It’s a long, story,” replied Smith. “Relatively speaking.”

“My wife was from the south, too,” said Gonzalez.

As Gonzalez stepped back from the telescope, he motioned for Smith to come take a look. Then Smith bent down and beheld Saturn once again. Beautiful Saturn, with its smooth surface and magical rings. Being someone from another galaxy, Saturn reminded him of Earth, as if it was a cousin or a close neighbor.

Then Smith noticed something. Something weird. He adjusted the telescope lens to focus in on an image he thought he saw orbiting the surface of Saturn. Upon closer inspection, he realized that the tiny image was none other than Gonzalez waving at him. He looked up from the telescope and saw Gonzalez, now standing only two feet away from him, waving at him. He looked back and forth, from the telescope to the person standing in front of him. He even noticed that Gonzalez’s movements synchronized with the waving image orbiting Saturn.

Then it all become clear.

Gonzalez opened his clenched hand. Nestled in his palm, Smith saw a golden button.

“It’s all relative,” said Gonzalez, a broad smile on his face.

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