Peter Hughes


If You Have the Time


The main things I remember in high school: bullies and weirdoes.

Bullies are bothersomes that never bothered me very much.  But I did worry about being the brunt of them.  I should have been bullied because  I was a science geek since before I can remember.  I liked math, science, chemistry, radio and space.  While the science was always practical and truthful, I didn’t learn much about people and was a social zero.   I should have been the target of bullies but something happened.  Early in middle school I was the science geek that became the better-watch-out-for mad scientist. 

In North Carolina, we hunt and fish at an early age. I wasn’t much of a hunter or fisher, but I was dissecting and studying the animal’s carcass as we cleaned them. 

My 6th grade Christmas gift of a chemistry set began to grow.  Soon the chemistry set occupied the entire basement.  I set off an 11 foot rocket in 7th grade that flew 12 miles and I was arrested.  I blew up my Mother’s washing machine by accident.  Then there was the x-ray machine I made during 11th grade in the ecology lab because I was bored and once again wound up arrested.

In high school,  I worried about bullies and shied away from them, but in retrospect I didn’t have to worry about bullies.  Bullies are scared puffed up people trying to muster through their fear and test their exercise of authority.  And they can be pretty mean about it, especially in groups.  However, they are truly afraid of people that really do blow up things, make real rockets and do surgery on animals.

I was never bothered by bullies in high school.

That only left the weirdoes.  I was one of those, I suppose.  But I was nothing like the guy living out in the orchard.

The weirdo of all weirdoes was this guy named Peter.  He was small and had this sundial on a chain around his neck.  He was white, so white, I thought he would get melanoma from fluorescent lights.  He was goofy and walked around with this semi-smile on his face that made you think he was in a constant state of humor.  He wore that sundial and cradled it constantly.  I guessed the guy had a time or sundial fetish of some sort… but I couldn’t really understand it.  He never wore a watch, just that damned sundial.  The sundial was a deep dark wood with a little lever on it that was the prong for standing up to make a Sun shadow.  He showed it to me once.  Made of hardened teak, it was small, deep brown with a little gnomon and no markings for time.  I guessed with no numbers, you’d just go round and around 24 hours forever and ever. The forever part of it intrigued me.  It was pretty cool, but he made it feel weird with that semi-smile of knowing something secret.

He did have a secret.  In 11th grade we were on a class field trip to a lake for Biology biomass.  Biomass is bio – biology- live and then mass – as in stuff.  So that meant live stuff. We were supposed to be looking for biomass and logging in animals and insects.  I was looking at the girls, we were asked to wear swimsuits and would be getting wet.  Live stuff, women in swim suits… the very thought rocked my boat for sure.

The bus ride was great, I got to talk to some girls.  I was secretly thinking about them being in swimsuits when the teach comes over the loudspeaker, “Ladies go over to the beach where the grasses are and Gentlemen go to the locker room change and meet at the beach!”  

Aw Man!  Dudes were supposed to use a net to get minnows and other animals from the lake so we had to get wet.  No wet girls.  But I was teamed with two manly jocks named Mike and Toby.  That meant I could hang with them and eventually get over to the girls collecting plants for this biomass.

Biomass, my ass, the girls were the real biomass in this dude’s equation.

No wet girls in swimsuits sucked a plenty.  But what really sucked was that the three of us got teamed with geek ridden Peter.  Out he comes from the locker room, he looked like a dead zombie ghost in a pair of plaid red briefs.  If we didn’t play this just right, we would be guilty of geekdom and the future of the day would be gloomy.

Geekdom stuck his foot in the water and whistled.  I noticed that sundial was around his neck and cradled in his hand.

Mike says, “OK,  let’s go guys, get this over with real quick and go over to join the girls.”

“Yep.”  So we started dragging the net.  Eventually Peter caught up to us,  flailing in the water, making waves and plenty of noise.

“Shhh!  You’ll scare the fish!”

He took his pole and began to drag the sandy bottom.

We caught a couple of turtles that scurried quickly.  The jocks went after them and caught them many times just to have them wiggle out and dart into the reeds.

The sheer speed and agility of the turtles was amazing as these experienced sportsmen wrestled and grappled.  The turtles were like the water trickling through their fingers.

Peter said, “No!  Relax and give them time!”

“Time?  They’ll escape!”

He admonished, “Give them their time, not yours!”

“Quick surround them!”  We did but Peter made no effort at all and began to smile at us catching the turtles and them escaping so swiftly.

He sat down in the water and simply said, “Stop.  They will come.”

We were tired anyway so we rested on the poles of the seining nets.  Peter waited as he stroked that stupid sundial.  He moved slowly toward the reeds. 

He paused and then flash disappeared.  I saw another flash of ancient writings, like hieroglyphics and trigonometry.  I saw a fabric with a Sun in the bottom of a rubberized sheet, shimmering and spinning then a flare of light, not so bright, but I was startled.  The sheet inverted and turtles appeared covered in more hieroglyphics and numbers.  The whole gimmish just spun like a top that was bent in one direction and then collapsed inside of itself.  Just for the briefest instant.

I blinked.  I knew I saw it.  But it was no more.  I felt like a block of solid granite, couldn’t move and couldn’t figure what was real.

Peter waited and calmly picked up the two turtles.  He walked them over to the scales and weighed them.  He carefully recorded the weights and they watched him as he thumbed through the atlas to identify what turtle they were.

I could not speak. What is going on?  Did no one else see that?  The lake was there, the people were all there.  The turtles and Peter were fine.

The turtles were quite patient, rested and curious.  The concept threw me, patient turtles.  When Peter was through, he stroked the sundial,  carefully picked up his little charges and gave them a ride over to the reeds where they were returned to home.  They swam away disappearing into the darkness of the overgrown pondscape.

I watched all this in utter amazement, “Damn!”  I looked at the other two and just laughed, “Look at that!  Didn’t anybody see that?”

Mike snapped, “Look at that my ass!  I was ready to beat the hell out of them damn turtles!  Must’ve been snappers anyhow?”

I directed toward the murky marshes, “He really did control them.  It was like they knew him or even liked him?  I don’t know, pretty weird… but in a really good weird way or something…”  My voice trailed off.  “You mean you didn’t see that other thing?” I wasn’t too sure what to think.

Mike goes, “Hey! Fancy pants! You are on with them turtles?  I would have trashed them for sure and still got the biology stuff!”  He was flexing and posturing, sort of like he had something to show.

Peter just shrugged with that silly grin he always has:  “No.  Just used strong stuff.”

“I whup anybody!  And I’ll show you if anytime, anywhere!  We wore the things out for you anyway.  They were too tired to fight anymore.”

“No.  Just time.  Strong stuff.” He was stroking that sundial again.

Mike stared at Peter, “I just told you:    we wore out them snappers.  You just picked up the spent carcasses after we were done with them.”

Peter looked at me.  He knew I knew.  His monotone was disturbing, “Time.  Nothing more powerful.”

Mike shrugged off the weirdo,  “Nothin more powerful, Huh?  Well?  Come on, Sir Charles Atlas.  Let’s finish up with all this biomass crap and join with them girls.”

We did finish up.  We found a way to pad the information to take up three pages.  Three pages.  Why could somebody assign three pages if there aren’t three pages of information?  Five fish, two turtles, twenty mosquito larvae and three dead worms do not three pages make.  Hardly three sentences of biomass.  But you learn good in English to pad up information for the teacher.  Stretching out three sentences for three pages is a snap.

Anyways, we went over to the girls.  The two turtles became two vicious big snappers that the jocks beat up and  wore out, Sir Atlas over there cleaned up the mess and the pair escaped, ran like hell.

From then onward Peter was called Sir Atlas.

Atlas lived over by the apple orchards.  The big orchards over on Lyneborough Hill.  Their house was half way through the orchard, hidden from the road.  The whole farm was beautiful.  Riding up to the house you could easily tell a lot of love and work went into this property. The old farmhouse was old in foundation and framework, but brand new looking.  The barn and tractors were the same, so clean, so freshly painted. It was a picture post card of antiques brilliantly restored.

The orchards were not just neatly mowed down the middle of the rows, but almost manicured.  The trees were trimmed and weeds mowed right up to the trunks.  There were bird houses dotting the hilly green landscape accented with an occasional salt lick.

If you walk up their hill the view is outrageously awesome.  The hills off to the West and at night:  Jeeze, at night it is so dark… so perfectly dark -  you feel as one with the Milky Way enjoying a party with millions of dots of light.  When you lay there between the trees, you can see the leaves; feel the Earth and the slowly moving tapestry of living Universe.  Lay there and watch the stars move overhead as if time is in motion and stopped all at the same time.  It is a perfect Universe lover’s lane. 

His whole family were nice people, mostly kept to themselves, but they were friendly folk.  The whole family was a little goofy but nice enough.  They were well thought of all over town, yet somehow not thought of.  Everyone thought they were just “up there by the orchards”.

I’d see him on occasion.  Mostly when it was cold and wet outside and there was nothing to do or nobody to hang with.  He was more of an acquaintance than a friend. 

I just couldn’t see him as a friend.  He was sort of spooky, the all-knowing grin and then that thing at the biomass lake… well?

July 4, it was raining cats and dogs.  Buckets of water poured through little valleys in the dirt, “a gully washer” my Mom called it.  The parade, picnic and fireworks were cancelled, so I went over to Sir Atlas’ place.

We were in the barn watching the rain, laying on hay bales.  I asked him about his trick with the turtles:  He stroked that sundial gadget around his neck, “Yes, I noticed your notice.  I was hoping you’d forget about it.” 

His face melted into a low toned, zombie like, far away look in his blank eyes; “Very powerful time is.  So powerful we don’t even notice it passing.”  His gaze hit mine,  “Did you see that minute?  It just went by.  Gone forever.”

He swallowed deeply, “Gone.  Gone mostly.  But it can be given or taken.  Buried or beginning.”  Stubby fingers rubbed and caressed the ever present sundial around his neck.  “It can be altered.  We live in an altered state of time.”

He looked right through me as if I was swallowed in time, his fingers strumming the sundial in full octave harmony: “Tune it,  alter it we may.  Rev it up, tone it down.  Direct it or fend it off.  Given or taken.”

“Whatever,” he spoke,  “Forget about it.”

His pause took way too long as he stroked the sundial, “But you probably won’t forget all about it, even with time.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget what I saw.”

Sir Atlas took a sip from the soda, “No you probably won’t.”  He shrugged, ”Heck!  We are probably more the same than you think.” 

He hopped off the bale,  “OK.  All I did was; I simply gave the turtles their time and took time away from me.  You probably know more about it than you think.  You’ll feel better about it… all in good time.”

In that moment I realized he was much stranger than I had imagined and I knew I’d never forget.

Fortunately, most people grow out of high school.

. . .

“Straighten up!  Hold up your chin!”  She adjusted the tie, patting my chest with profound finality, “There!”  She pointed me toward the hotel mirror,  “ Now you’ll look all pretty for the reunion.” 

“I’m not so sure about all this.  But you sure look pretty.”  I looked at the in the mirror, then at us in the mirror, “Real pretty.  Are you sure you are with me?  That is one lucky man standing right there in the glass.”  I reached for her.

“Now stop!  We are getting ready to go!  No foolishness, for now… “  She stepped away from me, “we have missed so many of these!  I’m excited!  Don’t you want to see everybody from thirty years ago?  Find out how they all turned out?  Think about it:  What are they up to?  Where did they move to?  How many children and grandchildren do they have?   Who is divorced?  Who is on their third marriage?  Some didn’t turn out you know… I see another one in your class has died or disappeared or something.”

I hadn’t really thought of it much that way.  “Honey,  I purposely moved out of here so I wouldn’t have to answer all those questions!  Not a single one of them!  We aren’t going to volunteer to them we aren’t married?  If we do, they’ll piously ask; “For 15 years?”  It’s none of their business.”

She picked out pink lipstick, “Well I want to meet all of them!  I feel like I know some of them already.”

“Go ahead and meet them!  Have lots of fun…  just remember we are going home in two days.  Don’t say anything about us.  Don’t give them any ammunition to launch an attack of moral judgment.  We are not open for discussion.  We are none of their business.”

And it wasn’t any of their business.  I did move out of Monadnock Valley to get out of it.  Off in an escape to university taught sciences then on to chase those rainbows in science.  One research lab after another.  Which is strangeness all in itself; science has been my life love since I was about 6 years old.  The maths are more solid than the women I’d known that were lovers and eventually came to leave me. I had not invited that loneliness and was saddened by it… but I always had the rock solid Universe.

Each new city the same as the last one and yet different in temperament.  A brand new research project and a new me in every move. The slate wiped clean, a new beginning, a new memory and traverse of time. Omar Khayyam’s  “Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on”…

Out of the small town twenty questions game.  Away from smelly old ladies who remembered birthing me and how I sucked my thumb or walked on my toes.  Away from embarrassing childhood pictures and stories of how I ran down the steps of the gazebo with my pants down when I was 5 years old.  Out of  it. I went far away from any criticism arising from a childhood history that I would never be able to put away or disposition.  Away from none of their business.

I liked the fact I had become anonymous into the numbers of the university, the research for the government and the city. 

There is a strange solace in being hidden in plain sight.  Blending into the crowd, a chameleon among the masses; hiding in the niceties of trivial friendships while being moved from city to city in the government moving game.  Only knowing the neighbors by name, there are no relationships to dissolve.  No relationships to maintain or nurse for the currency of favors… just work for the paper currency, pay my own way and owe nobody.  No love, no crying, no pity or discord to work over, just the ever smiling superficial friendship.  No complications, just move on when it was time.  Like a grey cat at night, totally blended into the matrix and you are fully functional, adjusted and satisfied.  I liked it.

I really liked it.

But now, here , I was turning the car into the parking lot with my love interest beside me and scared to shit.  We entered the tent, placed name tags on.  Then the obligatory meeting of people I assumed I must have known before, but they didn’t look the same at all. 

I was hugged by people with names I vaguely remembered.  Even hugged by women who paid no attention to me at all back in high school.  Scared for no reason.  Thirty years of absence made me born again and in the eyes of the Valley natives, we were strangers that were distant acquaintances.

Everybody was so old!  Grey, bald and fat.  I had grown fat for a while, but then lost that weight.  All the pretty people and those of the in crowd had spread out adipose tissue so that it filled out a small mu-mu.

All in all, everything was pleasant enough.

Then here comes up Sir Charles Atlas.  He didn’t seem to age very much.  A few wrinkles, some grey around the ears.  He even looked better than he did years ago. And Good Lord!  This was his wife? His wife looked about 30.  Damn!  They looked out of place here, they looked so good.  He recognized me with a warm, “Hi, haven’t seen you in so long!”  His handshake was solid and firm.  Where in the heck did he find her?  I thought I had seen her before, but she was in amazing shape and looks also!

We caught up on details of our lives.  He and his wife were still on the farm.  They had to build another house for his and her parents.  Life was good, the orchards were producing.  He had married only once, had four children, three grandchildren and two more on the way.   The children were handsome and lively.  I couldn’t help but notice one had a small silver medallion bouncing around on her neck,  it was a sundial.

He kept talking but my mind just couldn’t shake thoughts of his wife.  A familiarity was there and a disjointed occasion or something that just didn’t seem to add up.  This beauty had reared four kids, while living on a working farm; had watched after their parents and looked like this at say 49 or 50?

There had to be something in the water.

He related all this and finally he began fingering around his top shirt button.  He still had the sundial!  He had found an artisan to make one out of gold!  It was beautiful and very unique.  Obviously he passed his fascination to at least one of the children.

I was admiring the sundial, “Did you have one made for your kids?”  “Yup, one for each of them.”

Toby sauntered over to our group.  Was good to see him.   We chatted a while.  He was in business and wanted to buy the hill up on top of the orchards.  “Sir Charles,  come on now!  You’ve got to go in with me on a hotel there!  We’ll share the profits, you can retire from farm life and just live easy.  Like I have all my life.”

Atlas replied, “Yep!  You have had a good life.  Haven’t you?”  He pointed his finger toward the orchards,  “Can’t do that Toby,  life is good the way it is.  A little work doesn’t hurt anyone.  Don’t want to go messing with the harmony, ya know.”

Toby looked to me.  I postured with palms up, “Hey Toby, not me!  We’re going back to Minneapolis in two days!  No partnering for us.”  Secretly, I didn’t want my private view of the Universe for sale.

Sir Atlas turned to me, “Why don’t you come on up to the house tomorrow?  We’ll have a nice cook out, some music or something?”

“I don’t know,”  I turned to her, half hoping she would politely decline. “Hon… want to go over?”  She was delighted!  So tomorrow we would go see the farm and the hill.  Hon would love it.

The rental car steered along an apple tree lined drive leading to the farmhouse.  Spooked a deer reaching up nibbling at the treats.  The orchards were pristine.  The houses and barns were clean and painted like new.  The grass was green, hills were a hilly carpet landscape of apples,  startled deer scattered and a trio of crows called out their warning of our approach.  We could smell the attraction of meats slowly roasting in an oak smoker.  There were tunes of a country radio station wafting in as we pulled up.

Sir Atlas, wife, kids, some neighbors and Toby were already milling about the grill.  Beers flowed, kids played off in the distance and adults stood around talking.  Women went off to talk about women’s stuff and men went off to talk mostly about women.

I helped Peter go inside and lead Grandpa outside.  Grandpa was frail, ill and couldn’t quite straighten up to walk, but he was still going.  We shuffled him over to the wooden tables in the sunshine.  Introductions made, the conversation turned to food… really good food, complimented with pleasantries.

We were eating at the tables, “Gosh you look great! Almost like I remember you from high school days!” I spoke to the ailing grandfather.

“Well thank you.  It’s all about good genes and good food, good mountain air and of course…” he held his glass of single malt high, “Good time!”

He brandished the glass, “To a good time!”

“It’s all about time ya’ know.  How you spend it, how you donate it… It’s what you do with it and who you do it with.”

“I ask, “So that’s the secret to a long life? Genes, food, air and time?”

“Yep!  That’s about it.”

He gestured to Toby, “Son… let me see your watch, please.”  Toby took off the piece.  It looked like a Timex, one of those heavy duty ones.

“Ya see… Here’s the thing.”  His finger pointed to the face of the watch, “All you have to do is go from here to here,” as he scribed over the crystal, “and you have time.”

“If you stop, say, right here.” He pinched into the crystal,  “Then you have no more time.  But somebody else does.”

He stopped again and looked around, “Ok boys, looks like we better help with the cleaning up.  You boys get with the help, I’m a little tired.  Think I’ll go for a nap.  Hah!  Maybe I could use some of that younger energy!  Here, Peter, take this watch.  I can’t remember where I got it.”

Sir Atlas slipped the watch into his pocket and helped his old grandfather shuffle over to the hammock.

Clean up was easy.  The Sun was beginning to get very warm.  I found some shade in the cool barn.

Sir Atlas, Toby and I rested on some bales of hay, listening to the overtures of a country station arising from that radio over by the wood smoker.  Some of the kids were dancing to the music, “Yep, this is a good time.”

Toby spoke, “May be if you like it like this.  That reminds me, Sir… could I have my watch back?”

“You may have your watch, but not the time.”  His eyes ran up and down the Toby’s body and settled firmly into his eyes.  Looking in, almost peering and searching.

That’s when I noticed the difference in his gaze, he wasn’t looking for something, he was extracting it.  It was all so fast, time seemed to slow.

He silently looked intently into Toby’s eyes while he extended his hand holding the watch.  The springy crack of his thumbnail piercing the crystal of the watch was louder than I had imagined.  The time seemed to stop… I could see Toby looking in astonishment.  The thumbnail proceeded to bend the minute and hour hands, the mechanism began to shake in his palm.  Toby contorted for just a moment as the face of the clock collapsed under the crushing weight of the thumbnail.

Peter tossed the crushed watch to Toby.  Toby caught it, looked at it.

A flash of green light, a woven fabric appeared then bent into a vortex funneling toward space, then the hieroglyphics… but I recognized them!  They weren’t hieroglyphics, they were wave functions and maths sending particles into the vortex as the numbers changed in the furious maelstrom.  Toby’s body leapt toward the vortex and turned inside out.  A loud Pop was made when his body was turned into another rubber-like vortex inverting to a rotating funnel.  The maths continued and the particles disintegrated into the black hole and through the singularity, like a bunny going down a hole.

The funnel flowed internally with a juggernaut storm and immediately I recognized the event horizon of the black hole into the singularity.  I jumped to run, but the gravitational force held me still.

My hands were of lead and my legs were like water, my mind could see it all… how well I thought knew the flux of quantum conversion.  But this was the real up-close and personal, hands-on conversion of momentum! Toby’s mass grew as it was sucked up into the fabric of funnel.  Hamiltonian complexes rained thick as they converted to wave functions in the instantaneous warping of time…  particles released then sucked back into the rabbit hole of black.   So black, the light was sucked in.  The sound was sucked in, the fire and the energy winding down the wormhole like a wisp in a tornado.

Crashing, raging waves, the functions, the momenta and the energy of Toby,   all sucked up into the whirlpool singularity.  So violently and silently it all came and went. 

A flash of yellow ionization penetrated the funnel as the worm hole began to close.  With a final burp of an expelled neutrino from the last neutron:  Toby was gone. 

The silence of space demise was deadening, deafening and complete.

Only the time was left over, a floating pink smoky flume.

Peter petted the sundial around his neck and wafted the time toward the ailing old man lying on the hammock.  The flume moved closer and closer to the old, sick man.  I braced myself, fearing for the explosion.

A quiet flash of red blurred my vision.  I felt at peace.  I began to relax.

I was resting on some bales of hay, listening to the overtures of a country station arising from a radio over by the wood smoker.  I felt inquisitive, but strangely not frightened, “What the hell?  Did you see that?”

Sir Atlas spoke softly, “I remembered you had seen it before.  Ya’ know,  we might be related somehow…  nobody I’ve ever met has been able to see that, except for my family.  Strong stuff that time is.”

I stammered, “But what happened?  I mean I saw what happened, but what was that… that happened?”

He shrugged, “Forget about it for the time being, we’ll talk about it sometime when you have the time.  Now it’s time for some b-ball.  The old farts versus the kids.”  He hollered across the yard,  “Come on Grandpa!”

Grandpa looked fresh and healthy!  He had picked up a bushel of apples and carried them over by the smoker, plopped it down, dusted off his gloves and scrambled over. “Thanks Son.  Feel tip-top now.”

“No problem Pops.”

The old man clapped, “I’m ready to kick some young punk ass in basketball.”

Peter touched my arm walking over to the basket, “We will talk soon, “  his other hand placed something in my palm and his hand curled my fingers tightly around it,  “and there will be time for you.”  He ran off to meet his grandfather.

The silver sundial felt warm in my palm.

Copyright © Peter Hughes

Peter E. Hughes is a Clinical Laboratory Biochemist, Ph.D., North Carolina State University.  

He is a NASA Scholar and Senior Scientist.  He researches and writes for the Mad Scientists as a representative of the United States and is an editor of Biochemistry and Medicine for the Encyclopedia of Earth. Major interests are photography, writing about life experiences, electronics and Radio Astronomy of Close Space Events.

He writes short stories, poetry and humor.