The Window of Time
Written by Richard Matheson
Narrated by Scott Brick

   THE WINDOW OF TIME

Let me say, at the outset, that I don’t blame my daughter for what happened. Actually, “blame” is too critical a word. What I mean to say is that my daughter was hardly responsible for what happened. Miriam is a good soul, a benevolent human being. She never (well, almost never) found fault with my living in her home. And Bob’s. And the three boys’. And, if she did find fault, it was of such brief duration as to be negligible. Bob, on the other hand—well, let that go. (The main point I want to make is that my daughter did not demean me in any way for my extended residence. She knew I was alone and friendless; all of them deceased, including my beloved wife Agnes. Appreciating that, Miriam treated me with thoughtfulness, kindness. And, most importantly, love.)

So much for the outset. The upshot? I know that my daughter and her family were in a constant state of stress because of me. I did the best I could, using their second bathroom (I didn’t have the temerity to utilize the master bathroom) as expeditiously as possible, watching television on the small black and white set in my bedroom, rarely watching the 55” LCD color TV in their living room and sharing that only when we all agreed on a specific program. Most of my personal books were in storage and scarcely ever reread. I’d read them all anyway.

Oh, there were other elements of stress. Certain foods I couldn’t eat. Medicine prescriptions I needed periodically. Rides to various doctors. (I’d lost my driver’s license in 2008 following my stroke.) Well, why go on? I was, to be brief, in the way. So I decided to leave. I had enough private income from Social Security and my retirement pension from the Writers Guild. (I was rather a successful series television writer in the ‘60s and ‘70s.) So I had enough income to keep paying Miriam by the month even though I wasn’t there.

~ * ~

I didn’t tell her I was leaving. I knew she’d try to dissuade me. My age (eighty-two, I’d married late), my health (questionable), my need for company (beyond question). I didn’t want to debate with her. So I just left a parting note on the kitchen table. I didn’t take any belongings with me. I could get them after I located a furnished room or flat. I waited until Miriam had gone shopping for groceries. Bob was at work (he’s a car salesman, poor chap). The boys—Jeremy, seventeen, Arthur, fourteen, and Melvin, twelve—were at school. So I decamped from the three-bedroom, two-bath Kelsey domicile (Jeremy would, likely, be delighted at long last to acquire his own room) and walked over to Church Avenue. (Did I mention that their house was in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn? No, I didn’t. Well, it is.) And I had seen (for some time) an ad in the local news sheet about a retirement home in that area called Golden Years. The name gave me the pip. Golden Years my foot! But I was in no position—or condition for that matter—to go searching to hell and gone for an appropriate landing spot.

The home—I had trouble thinking of it as a “home”—was a couple of blocks west of Flatbush Avenue. The ad described it so. To be truthful, I can’t tell east from west or north from south. I assumed that I was heading in the right direction, and evidently, I was. I found the house a block and a half distant from what had been the RKO Kenmore Theatre in my youth. Not a bad-looking house, cleanly painted, a sign hanging above its porch which read G-lden Years, the O missing. No mention of retirement. I had to assume it was the place I was searching for.

The doorbell made such a deafening resonance when I pressed it that it made me wince.

An old lady answered the door. My immediate assumption was that the house was hers and she was attempting to keep from losing it by renting out unused bedrooms.

She smiled at me. “You’ve come looking for a place,” she said.

Her assumption would ordinarily have offended me. But her demeanor was so friendly, her voice so agreeable, that I felt nothing but acceptance in her presence. “Yes, I have,” I answered her. Politely.

“Come in then,” she said, still smiling.

There was no mention of rental as she led me down the dim-lit hall. Hung on both sides were old, faded photographs and paintings. She must be almost my age, I thought, although I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking. Her hair was silvery gray, her clothes outdated, her dark dress ankle length. She walked with a youthful step, however.

Reaching a door, she opened it. “Here it is,” she said. “Let me know if it’s what you need.” With that, she was gone.

I closed the door behind me and looked around. What I need? An odd expression to use. Fundamentally true, though. I did need some place to hang my hat. (My cap.) I needed to give Miriam a much-needed breather from my presence.

There were two windows in the room. Through the one in front of me, I could see Church Avenue, the passing cars and occasional pedestrians. Nothing special there. I looked around the room. Nothing special there, either. The furniture was as elderly as I was. No private bathroom, of course. I’d have to share. Not a problem. The house was pleasantly quiet except for the motor hum of passing vehicles. The room would do.

I moved to the other window. It looked out on a barren lot. To the right was a view of Church Avenue. I looked at it for a few moments.

And felt my spine turn to cold water. I shuddered so violently that I visualized my spine collapsing like a thin tower and splashing out of my body.

It was Church Avenue all right. But not the avenue I was accustomed to. It was unquestionably—incredibly—different. In brief, I didn’t recognize it. It was different. How different I had no idea.

So what did I do? Old fool that I am, I raised the window and—bones creaking—climbed (clambered actually) outside and dropped to the ground. The fall gave me spinal pain; now it was hard bone again. I ignored the pain and moved as quickly as I could to Church Avenue.

“My God,” I remember muttering. (I muttered it innumerable times that afternoon.)

It was different. Totally different. Appearing as it had when I was young.

Young! I shuffled, unable to move distinctly, and looked at my reflection in the nearest store window. No difference there. My reflection was, as usual, that of an eighty-two-year-old man—white-bearded (albeit well trimmed) face not too noticeably lined, white cap covering hair-receded skull. Not too bad looking. But still eighty-two. Church Avenue might have changed. I had not.

I looked into the store. It was a butcher shop. There was a sign printed on the window, Esposito Meats.

That cold, liquid sensation in my spine again. Johnny Esposito! The Y! The gang! Was that the time I’d reached? How old was I? Thirteen? Fourteen? What? “My God,” I said again. (As I mentioned, one of many I muttered that afternoon.)

No, I was still eighty-two. But what year was I in? If Johnny Esposito was about, were Harry Pearce and Ken Naylor and all the others? Good God, could I walk up a few blocks, turn right and come to the YMCA? Would I see the old gang playing softball in the yard? Hit the porch column and get a double! Jesus, I hadn’t thought of that in ages!

No. I had to shake my head. It was all too insane. What if I could reach the Y? What if I saw my young self playing in the yard? Pitching for the Ravens. Stare? Walk away? Yell to myself? “Hey, strike ‘im out, Rich!” Impossible. Put the crazy notion aside. So Church Avenue had changed. That was no reason to believe that the area for miles around had changed too. I was sure it hadn’t.

Or had it?

Now the entire madness of what I was experiencing flooded through me. I had time traveled! I’d written television scripts about that, but now I was actually living it! Or was I dreaming it? Was I at home in Miriam’s house, sacked out on my bed, fantasizing about my past? But, if that was true, why was I still eighty-two? Why was I experiencing every moment in my brain and body?

Only one way to validate. Keep moving. Keep looking. Should I try to find the Y? Probably not. I had no proof that this pocket of the past (insane notion) extended blocks beyond where I stood. Not knowing what had caused it in the first place, how could I be sure of its entirety? Better not, I decided. Stay on Church Avenue. Maybe that’s all there was. Go the other way. The Y and what I might find there was really immaterial anyway. The gang was part of my youth but not so important a part that I had to see it. And God knew I’d rather avoid seeing my young self playing softball. More important things to see. And who knew how long this mad excursion into yesteryear would last? I didn’t.

So I started—what, east?—down Church Avenue toward, I believed, Flatbush Avenue. The accuracy of my impulse was verified by the sight of the Kenmore theater marquee. I was able to see the letters. Little Miss Marker. The sight of it thrilled me. I’d seen it one afternoon after Sunday school. My sister treated my mother and me to the show; they were coming from church. How old was I? Twelve? Thirteen? Impossible to recollect, but I was getting close, I thought.

Before the show, we had lunch at Bickford’s Cafeteria, which I could now (thrilled again) see across the way, on Flatbush Avenue; I was at its intersection with Church. My God. One remembered sight followed another. Now the Flatbush Theater on Church Avenue just past Flatbush. I could barely make out the letters on its smaller marquee. Brooklyn, USA. I remembered seeing it. The scene in the barbershop, the customer (a gangster, I recalled) getting murdered with an ice pick. Scary stuff to a—what?—thirteen-year-old. Fourteen? And just down the avenue was the bar-restaurant where real gangsters met and ate and even married. I’d read about it in the newspaper when I was—whatever age I was, I still didn’t know.

It suddenly occurred to me—at once thrilling and frightening—that if I walked farther down Church Avenue, I might reach the ancient brick building I knew as P.S. 81. Was it still there? Why wouldn’t it be? Unless this section of the past did not extend that far. That’s the part that frightened me. Why was all this happening to me anyway? Should I stop someone and ask? No, that would be stupid. Everyone I passed obviously belonged in this time. I couldn’t prove it but I’m sure my expression was one of constant awe. No one I passed wore such an expression. They were in their time. I was the dazed interloper.

I wouldn’t try to explore the size of the past world. If Public School 81 was actually there, I was too unnerved to try reaching it. What if I did reach it? Would I see my young self in one of the classrooms taking instructions (in what? Grammar? Arithmetic? Geography?) from Mrs. Ottolengui? Good God, I remembered her name! That frightened me too. Did it mean I was being absorbed back into this time? I looked at the backs of my hands in alarm. (Or was it with hope?)

No. Still old. As always, thickly veined in dark blue. I had not lost eighty-two years. Jesus Christ, what’s going on?! I wondered in sudden alarmed anger. What was the point of it all? For a moment (but only a moment) I considered rushing back to the house and climbing back through that window. Except, of course (a terrifying Except), what if the house wasn’t there any longer? What if I was trapped in the past—a lone elderly gent caught in his own childhood?

No, that was impossible. There had to be some logic left in the world. Some sense to what I was going through. Why reverse time itself if there was no point to it? Why should nature distort itself so bizarrely for no reason?

All right, I decided (what other choice did I have?), I would continue and let the chronological chips fall where they may.

I crossed Church Avenue, wondering what the consequences would be of allowing myself to be struck down by one of the passing cars. A screech of brakes, an impact, the old gent flying to the pavement, most likely to his death. Who would gather up the body? Would my young self suffer the same fate when he reached eighty-two? Enigma piled on enigma. Would it happen again? A nightmarish possibility.

Anyway, I reached the curb safely, ignoring the angry shout of a motorist who had just missed sideswiping me. In front of me was the Dutch Reform Church. I remembered playing basketball in its gym. A gym in a church? I thought, confused.

With that, the charm of it all returned. No point in dark conjectures about the mystery of an eighty-two-year-old man at bay in his own past. Enjoy yourself. I thought.

And so I did. Strolling down the Flatbush Avenue I recalled, newly moved by the sight of each spot I remembered vividly—at least when I saw it again. Loft’s Candy. We used to buy a package the size of a pound of butter in which was a thin layer of frozen strawberries, a thicker layer of vanilla ice cream. Enough for three, my sister, mother, and me, or four if my older brother Bob showed up, five if his fiancée Mary accompanied him. God, I thought. Any of my kids—John, Arthur, Miriam—could have—single-handedly—devoured the entire package.

Across the way was the high school Barbra Streisand had attended. At first, I couldn’t remember its name. Why not? I remembered Mrs. Ottolengui’s name. Then it came to me. Erasmus. He was what? A mathematician? A philosopher? Greek probably. So what? I thought. Too many mixed-up, meaningless recollections. Concentrate! I ordered myself.

Which is when it occurred to me that Erasmus extended all the way to Bedford Avenue, a block away. How could that be? Did the past effect stretch that far? Had I merely been, for some unknown reason, a traveler back to an entire location? Was I in Brooklyn completely? If I took a BMT subway train downtown would it all be there? For God’s sake! came the stunned notion. I might get so enmeshed in the past that I could never get back to that damned window. Then what? An eighty-two-year-old man from the year 2009 trapped in the year—what year was it?

I took a chance, risky or not. I stopped an old lady who looked kind. “Excuse me, ma’am,” I said, “I’m lost. Could you tell me where I am?”

“Brooklyn, of course,” she answered, “Flatbush.”

“Ah,” I said. “And it’s nineteen hundred—?”

Her lips pursed. Now I’d irritated her. “Forty-one,” she said as though addressing an aggravating child.

“Forty-one,” I said.

“Yes,” she said, “and, if you’re lost, you’d better tell a policeman.”

“Yes,” I said, “Thank you so much.”

She gave me a look which seemed to be one of suspicious curiosity. I didn’t want to intrude on her any longer so I repeated my thanks and continued on down the sidewalk of 1941 Flatbush Avenue. I was pleased that I had (successfully it appeared) invaded the past without repercussion. Of course, I had displeased that old lady—at the end of our brief exchange she’d grown cautious. Why? I wondered. Was my 2009 outfit so different? Or was it simply that my queries had been peculiar, even suspect?

I had to put that out of my brain. It was getting cluttered there. I stared at Erasmus as I walked, remembering, at that moment, that a few doors down from its Bedford Avenue side was the Jewish temple (I recalled the sound of their chanting through their open back doorway), and a few doors down from them, my aunt and uncle’s house, next to that the two-story office building where they did cleaning and where they took me one evening with my cousin Francis to look at the mass of axed pinball machines, the result of a local police attack. And on the first floor was the ice-cream parlor where I bought Gob’s ice cream cones—

Too much! My brain was being consumed by unnecessary memories again! I had to control them! I had to. I washed them off with deliberate focus. I was on Flatbush Avenue. I’d keep my self—and brain—exclusively there, enjoy the nostalgic sights, not let my brain go haywire with mobbing remembrances. Good. I would not dream of ringing the doorbell of my aunt and uncle’s house. Assuming, as I now did, that the house was actually there, what impossible complications would arise if they answered the door? A slough of incredible explanations consumed my brain. Yes, I know I’m eighty-two, but I’m really fifteen; I’m your nephew Richard. I’m here from the year 2009. I went out a window in a house on Church Avenue and—lo and behold!—I’m in 1941. Strange, isn’t it?

Impossible, isn’t it? I thought. Time traveling into one’s past had to impose certain rules, certain limitations. One of which is: Don’t try to think too much. Don’t try to contact anybody. Just be an observer.

All right, all right. I got it. So down Flatbush Avenue I strolled, an observer in time. Only.