The Question of the Question

Submitted into Contest #253 in response to: Write about a character who has the ability to pause the passage of time.... view prompt

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Romance Drama Horror

1

Thoreau once said, “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.” Wise man as he was, he could only fish in time. I can swim in it.

It is not hard to stop time. All you have to do is feel how slow it is, and then feel it getting slower until it stops. When I was a kid, I felt bad for everyone else because they couldn’t live each summer day as long as a year. I only let the autumn semester come because I got bored of playing alone.

Now I stop time when I see some injustice in the world, like a waiter about to spill drinks on my soon-to-be fiancee. The champagne hangs in droplets around her face like stars, and her starbright smile hasn’t had time to fall. I admire her, for an hour or five, in this perfect stillness, this perfect moment. Then I dry the stardrops from the air before they can wet her hair. I put my arms and head and fingers and smile all exactly where they had been when time stopped, and when I breathe, and feel time lurching forward with the iron weight of a train, the only mess is a pile of broken glass around our feet.

For a few days the waiter will be telling himself he was sure those champagne glasses were full.

Kierstin’s so beautiful when she’s motionless. But she’s also beautiful when she moves. When she sits on the mahogany chair, she folds her dark hair, dyed blue at the tips, over her shoulder and spreads her blue satin dress smooth over her lap. This restaurant, this whole world, is so noisy, and when I’m swimming forward through time, she’s my island of quiet. I rest in her warm green eyes and savor the taste of seeing her taste this expensive champagne. Dollars are nothing to me. Moments, instances, are all we have.

I eat the braised pork belly, she eats the truffle risotto. I slow time to a halt and taste each bite for days, savoring every grain of flesh and every drop of fat. When she gives me some risotto, I taste it for a year. Don’t be shocked at this. When time has ceased to exist, and you rest inside of it instead of stumbling around it, a year is not a long time. A second is not a short time. There is no time. There is no time.

If your soon-to-be is smart and playful, don’t bore them with a regular proposal. Give them something to laugh at and love you, so when you pop the question, the tears flow out even stronger. I paid something extra for a polka band. Her grandpa loved polka. The band starts playing as they weave through the tables. Her eyes well up as I go down on one knee.

I say her name how she likes it.

“Oh, Kierstin?”

“Yes?” Her eyes are glistening.

“I just have a quick question for you.”

I reach into my jacket pocket for the ring. And it’s gone. It’s actually gone. I close my eyes against the rising panic and feel time fall away. The polka dies off. The world is silent. And then I remember. When I bought this suit, I bought a second one. If the first got stained in the middle of dinner, I could instantly change into the other one. The ring is in the other jacket.

A sigh as long as a summer slides out of my lips. I open my eyes to her face, captured like a work of art in this moment of anticipation. This moment, with this amazing girl beaming like an endless pour of sunlight and honey, could last forever if I wanted it to. She’s so perfect now. Everything about her is perfect, including her crooked little tooth. So I take her in like a sunset. I take her in for a long time…

2

Eventually, in that perfect eternity, I walk home and get the ring. I brush my teeth so I’m extra fresh for the big kiss. I take some condoms too. We’ve been in this apartment together for three years now. Most days are actually pretty wonderful with her.

I glide around the falling leaves that ornament in the air, and I look into the future at our perfect marriage. There’s Kierstin and I, waking up every morning to fall in love again and again. We have sex. We make our kids breakfast and take them to school, then we come home and have sex again. She gives me massages and I make her truffle risotto every night.

This moment is just ripe with love. So when I see a little girl knocking a porcelain doll off her window sill two floors up, I feel like helping.

The doll rests two feet above the ground. The girl in the window is molded in a pure expression of oh-shit. I rescue the doll from its infinite fall, and carry it up the stairs. Their door is locked, so I try all the windows until I find one that’s open, and I slip in.

I don’t always sneak into apartments, inside time or out of it, but when I do, I love it. I like observing people when they believe no one is observing them. They start to behave freely like animals or insects. They become totally honest. And when I let time stop, they cease observing themselves, and they become pure like a sleeping baby.

There. The porcelain doll now rests on the window sill as if it was never bumped. This girl will live the rest of her life believing that on this night she witnessed her doll teleport twenty feet through the air.

Maybe it wasn’t an accident. In this pure moment, she can’t hide it: she’s filled with fear and covered in tears. And in the other room, her parents are fighting. She dropped the doll on purpose, as a desperate act towards freedom.

The dad is drunk. He’s yelling at the mom, piercing the air with an accusatory finger. He’s drunk. Spit flies from his fiery words. In his slobbering mouth, there’s an ugly, crooked tooth that juts out from the coastline of his teeth.

And the mom, she’s covering something on her neck. A hickey. Not from him. She’s explaining something away. But she can’t hide the truth from me. She has some fear, but mostly she’s soaked in pride for getting away with it all these years.

This must be the first failed marriage in history. But I can’t save them, they are doomed. That crooked tooth of his will drag them both through decades of misery until the death of one saves both.

I’m filled with hopelessness when I return to the restaurant and get back on one knee. In this moment of stillness, Kierstin can’t hide it from me either. In her perfect little smile, that crooked tooth becomes ugly to me. And I wonder if it will drag us through lifelong misery.

That poisonous thought sneaks in: Am I Sure?

From my mahogany chair I study her. Am I sure about you, Kierstin? Am I actually sure? Her glistening eyes, gazing down where I used to be kneeling, are no longer glistening. Now they’re like glazed over like plastic. Her overjoyous expression becomes molded and affected. I read inauthenticity in the lines of her face.

I speak into the silence, and then I shout. “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do I love you?” The death silence of the world is the response I get.

I could only ever say I love you when I was drunk. So I get drunk, and I whisper into her ear, and I shout it across the restaurant at her: “I love you! I love you! I love you!” But the words lose momentum and fall dead on the carpet of this dead and quiet world.

I leave the ring in its case on the table, and I leave Kierstin where she is, to wait patiently for my big question. Now I have another question. A question of the question. Thank god I have a thousand years to find the answer.

3

I wander around the lifeless earth for a long time. I don’t know how long. I eat, I sleep, I defecate, and I think. Mostly I think.

When I eat, first I eat food from groceries and refrigerators, hoping to keep my changes to the world unnoticed. Then I stop caring and start eating warm food from peoples’ plates. They will wake up and everyone’s meals will have vanished. I don’t care about retaining this little secret anymore. All it has done is taken away my ignorance. Blessed are the ignorant, for they are not tortured with the knowledge of other possibilities.

But when I eat, I don’t touch our restaurant or any of that food. I go to her often and contemplate her, trying to bring life to her eyes again. But everything’s dead.

With a brake on time in my hands, I got used to a world where nothing changes. But now the dramas in my mind never stop. I ask the question of the question, and spend centuries looking for the answers. I spend a hundred years envisioning one path of our potential marriage, one where it’s truly happy and prosperous. Then I spend the next hundred years seeing our marriage dwindle, dull, and decay. I witness all the fights we might have, and all the moments where we are just too busy for intimacy, where we just have sex to check it off a list. Where she begins to cheat, and I begin to drink.

Then I just dream of all the good memories we shared. I live in that fantasy of the past for a hundred years or more. I wish I could return to those moments of perfection, before everything was spoiled by truth. But I can’t reverse time. I can only grasp onto this moment until I’m ready to let it go, let it flow forward and drag me with it… 

4

It’s sometime in the future. I’m in some other city in America, but I’ve gone nowhere. I don’t ask the question of the question anymore. I don’t even know who I was supposed to marry. I’ve just been running in place, wearing down a hole in my mind. I’m trapped in that hole now, but I don’t try to climb out.

The world is kind of nice all motionless and solid. It’s like a massive diorama, and all the people are in the middle of drinking a cup of coffee or halfway to shaking a hand. I walk across the continent and peruse the still life of this country, then I walk across the rolling hills of the Atlantic and peruse some other countries.

It’s daytime over here in Germany. Families lounge for an eternity in the park like a Monet. The ice cream never melts in the sun. The birds are all tacked to their places in the air, and an old man sits alone on a bench like a bronze statue of someone famous and dead.

He’s in the middle of a cigarette, the old man. The smoke lingers over his head like a cloud. He’s feeding pigeons with seed from his calloused hands. They’re gathering around his feet in a huge crowd. But half are scattering away in flight. A big Doberman is running loose into the crowd, dragging his leash behind him, and his big slobbering jowls are reaching for the bird that’s inches from the old man’s hand.

I fancy myself an artist and I fix the scene. I place a pinecone in the dog’s mouth so in a million years, when I let time move on again, there won’t be room in its teeth for a bird.

When I stand up, I see the old man is smiling at the dog. The dog is in the middle of scaring off his birds, but he just smiles. In this infinite moment, I see it. He can’t hide it from me. He’s in the midst of some catastrophe, and he sits here as pure and undisturbed as a sleeping baby. Among all the lifelessness in this dead diorama, he’s alive.

For two hundred years I study the wrinkles of his face, and then for two hundred years more I study those old eyes slowly going blind. But I can’t pull out the secret. He’s as clear and impenetrable as crystal. I sleep, and eat, and visit him in between. I get a taste for the sauerkraut and Mett. I eat my meals with him and smoke cigarettes with him, and try to see what he sees. For two hundred years I stare at the dog, at the grime in its teeth, but I can’t figure out how to smile at it.

5

Over centuries, I learn German. Then I get his name from his wallet and I research through all the papers in the Bibliothek and gather every article anyone has ever written on this Hans Brubach or any of his family or associates. He’s a retired engineer. He helped rebuild Munich’s sewage system in 1955. He had a wife who died young, and a second wife who gave him three kids and then died four years ago. He lives alone, near the river. He has the complete DVD collection of The Andy Griffith Show in the German dub, and he’s on page 119 of Das Glasperlenspiel. He has lung cancer. That’s what the test results on his kitchen table say. Next to those is a framed photo of his children and grandchildren. They live in other countries, all of them. He has no one but these birds. Yet when a dog comes to feast on them, he smiles. He’s dying, and he smiles. He chooses to sit in the park and keep smoking. The world is all dead, but in this moment he is totally alive.

I write a list of questions I want to ask him and I leave it in his pocket. Then I write a note to explain the questions. A note becomes a letter, which soon becomes a book. It ends up being a memoir about my life, and the final line ends with “Teach me how to smile.” I research ancient book binding techniques because I can’t use electricity, and I bind the book in leather that I take from a tanner’s shop. I leave it at his feet and I feel a cathartic release. So I write a hundred books about my relationship with Kierstin. The first book details how we met. The last books detail our possible futures. I lay them at his feet hoping he’ll decide which one is right. He’s so alive I forget he can’t move.

I study carpentry and woodcarving, and I build a library in the forest with the nicest woods of the world. I put the old books there and I write a thousand new ones. I write books about stopping time, its utilities and limitations, and my philosophy on its usage and its effect on a person’s life. Then I write books about him. I write long poems about him and his features, his aliveness. I write an entire series on his smile. I can fill up the shelves of this library and take him there on a wheelbarrow. He can wake up there and then he will know all of me. I can carve statues of him out of marble and scatter them around the world. I can leave subliminal messages for every person on earth and get him elected as Global Chancellor. He will have the power to match his wisdom. Then I can come to him, crawling across the jagged earth on my knees, and beg him to answer my question…the question of the question…should I ask that goddamn woman to marry me or shouldn’t I?

At his house, I look for a wheelbarrow to carry him to the forest. In the kitchen, I eat some fruit to power myself for the journey. In the photograph on the table, I look at his image. In his smiling teeth, I see it. One of them is crooked, ugly and bent. I go to him at his bench and lift his smiling lip. He has it. He has the tooth. It isn’t the symbol for ugliness, but wisdom! My god…Kierstin has that tooth!

Months it takes me to cross the Atlantic, and months it takes me to get back home. I get dressed in my old suit, comb my hair and brush my teeth, and go back to the restaurant. Everything is still there. The polka band is waiting to play. And Kierstin’s eyes are glistening again.

I’m bursting with my love for her, with a newfound insight and respect. I get down on one knee again, and put my hand in my jacket pocket.

I close my eyes, and I start to feel the slow momentum of time begin to lurch forward…The polka slowly returns to life and the din of the restaurant resumes…I open my eyes and look into hers, her gorgeous, warm, glistening eyes, and I finally ask her the question.

“Will you marry me?”

I wait for the answer. Time is moving, but it feels like an eternity. The polka band has stopped playing. Her smile is slowly falling.

And then she screams.

June 08, 2024 03:48

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2 comments

Devon Cano
01:48 Jun 13, 2024

Wow, what an intriguing take on the prompt! I really had no idea where it was going, but the journey was very enjoyable. I like the open ending, it really allows the reader to come to their own conclusion about the story's moral. Great work!

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Elza Dayers
22:24 Jun 13, 2024

Completely agree!! I’ve read this two days ago and it’s now “alive” and lives rent free inside of my head

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