“How Greta Dies”
by Clay Waters
We knew something was up, though we could never have guessed what until we saw Eric’s machine. He found me and Max and Justin in the Student Union and requested—actually insisted—that we pry ourselves from our weekly Asteroids marathon and join him at the midnight movie.
I actually enjoyed Time After Time: H. G. Wells invents a time machine and ends up on the run from Jack the Ripper in San Francisco. Eric was enthralled and kept looking sideways to see if we were too. That was strange, because in the state-of-the-art physics of 1982, discussion of time travel was relegated to outré theorizing involving wormholes, and Eric already considered himself a scientist on par with anyone.
Then he posed his version of The Question, the one asked in dorm-room sessions and winding-down house parties, by science geeks and English majors alike: “If you had a time machine and a gun, would you kill Hitler?”
We all answered Yes except for Justin, who is a pacifist and can’t deal with guns.
That was the other strange thing: Eric never asked us what we thought. He never had to. It takes a lot to be ‘the smart guy’ at MIT, but that was Eric’s reputation. I was known as the smart guy’s roommate.
“Here’s a question for you, Eric,” Max said at last. “What’s this leading up to?”
“Right now, the 3rd floor of Astrophysics.”
“It’s locked for the night.”
“I’ve got a key code.”
“So that’s where you’ve been the last three months,” I said.
Even on a dorked-up campus like MIT, Astrophysics was deserted on a Sunday night. We walked up two flights; Eric typed an access code into a luminous keypad and a door clicked open. Inside, a wheezy computer was puking out high primes. Eric pulled down some homemade-looking tarp curtains and switched on the buzzing fluorescent lights. Then he cast the cover off a tallish lump in the corner.
“A barber chair,” Max noted.
“Found it at the dump.”
More accurately, a modified barber chair, with jury-rigged connectors running into the back of a souped-up Apple workstation. Two unframed, full-length mirrors attached in front (a tiny laser jutting from the back of one) completed the bizarre assemblage.
I had expected some time-machine game—Eric’s built his own Atari cartridges from programming to hardware. It was amazing what he could squeeze out of that brown, blocky machine and its meager 4 megabytes RAM.
I knew what Eric was going to tell us. Knowing also that hearing it from anyone else I’d dismiss it at crackpot nonsense.
Then he said it: “It’s a time machine.”
“Is this a joke?” Max snickered.
“I never joke,” Eric said, giving me a sour look. “Right, roomie?”
This was true. “Is this all there is to it?” I asked.
“Look under the seat, jerk.”
Most of the hard equipment—lattices of transistors, lead slabs, two sets of magnets, a mile of copper wiring, a test tube filled with ionized crystals and something resembling a miniature cyclotron—was tightly packed beneath the cordovan leather seat. A sawed-off Boston Bruin hockey stick functioned as a lever. Max was giving the machine a white-glove once-over. He raised his head and asked, “So how does it work?”
That took a while, Eric raising boomlets of chalk dust as he piled on equations, expounding on curled dimensions and quantum foam and tachyons (I’d at least heard of those) and something about ‘standing still for time.’ Max and Justin nodded along as if comprehending, but once I caught Max rolling his eyes.
As Eric was erasing one jumble of calculus and plowing into another, Justin attempted to break in. “You say we ride these strings back in time—”
“It’s more accurate to say you’re maintaining a holding pattern in a dimension of parallel strings that operate in a curled dimension without spatial quantities.”
“Where are you getting this stuff? I mean, none of this rings a bell with me.”
“You read the Journal of Astrophysics, don’t you? The Summer 1981 issue has some ideas concerning above-light speed tachyon travel; however none of the authors grasped the implications.” Eric sniffed.
“So once we locate the future Fuhrer, then what?” Justin asked.
Eric had the answer in his coat pocket. “This is a Luger, in case you didn’t recognize it,” he said, casting a significant look toward peacenik Justin, who looked ready to run screaming. “A German gun used in both World Wars.”
“Thank you,” Justin said. “Now could you put it away, please?”
“If Jews had guns there’d have been no Holocaust,” Max said.
“No one had guns,” Justin said. “They were banned by the Treaty of Versailles.”
“Save it for the coffee shop, guys,” I said. “Eric, I had no idea.”
Eric took a photo out of his wallet. It was an old black-and-white of an attractive young woman.
“My grandmother died at Mauthausen, in Austria.”
The young woman in the photo wore a shawl, smiling the thin, prim smile you tend to see in old photos. The reverse read Greta, Januar 1931. That dated it a few years before the horror. She’d still been very young.
Max and Justin treated it reverently, like a holy relic—which it was. I know they had lost relatives in the Holocaust. It’s a small but empty spot in our conversations, where talks of grandmothers and great-aunts would normally reside – things a Southern boy with a large branching family tree takes for granted.
“Do you want volunteers, then, Eric?” Max handed the photo back.
“No. I’m going. I just want someone to know. In case things change.”
“The butterfly effect. Small causes producing large effects. Large causes producing titanic effects.”
“How could killing Hitler make things worse?” Max asked.
“Not worse. Just different. Hitler dies before coming to power: Then maybe the war doesn’t happen. Or happens differently. No Holocaust. Everything changes. Including, maybe, the way our parents met. Goy boy over there might be OK—” he pointed at me, “-but the rest of us may not be around.”
“So how do you get back?” Justin asked
“I may not. Healing of the space-time continuum would begin with the assassination of Hitler. Thus, the circumstances that led me to build the time machine would never occur. The time machine would disappear and possibly me with it.”
“What if you make it?”
“Brush up on my German. Meet Einstein and Bohr. Co-publish.”
“Would you tell them about the machine?”
“Of course. What would Einstein come up with, knowing time travel was possible?”
Wow. The fantasy was too good to ruin by discussing it. We just savored the thought.
“So, when are you going?” I asked, finally.
“Next Sunday night,” Eric said. “Get one more week in.”
I guess if I had truly believed in Eric’s machine, in my bones, I would have blown the whistle. As it was, I had a good week. I met Sasha, a Radcliffe girl, at Sculler’s, a jazz bar across the Charles. I took her to my dorm room, which was, as usual, empty of Eric. I never appreciated his absence more. If I’d spent every week of my life as if I was about to be erased from space-time . . .
Homer nods. Sunday night Eric inputted his own spatial coordinates and mass, the last bit of data the program needed to fix his body on the time-curve-and his own program rejected him.
“Abraham and the promised land,” Max noted solemnly. Who knew time had a weight limit?
Max and I were both too heavy. Max seemed downhearted, but I was thankful for my gut—a ready-made excuse not to step into history. Only skinny Justin could squeeze in below the computer’s 58-kilogram requirement. Justin the pacifist.
“Why 58?” I asked. For once, Eric didn’t have an answer.
“How about it, Justin?” He asked, without much hope.
But rather surprisingly, Justin was up for it. He got into the barber chair, looking like a little kid eager for his first haircut. “Now, how does it work?”
“You can fix yourself in a particular quadrant of space-time. Presently the coordinates are set for outside Berlin 1931.” Eric showed him the keypad rigged beside the chair.
“Show me.” Justin inputted some other figures; Eric looked over his shoulder, frowning. “What are you doing?”
Eric tried to hand him the Luger, but Justin shook his other hand instead. “Even if I fired, I’d miss. It’s not in my psychic makeup to use a weapon, Eric. Sorry.”
“So what are you going to do? You don’t even know German!”
“I lost relatives in the camps too, Kramer.” Justin sounded hurt.
“Is this how Jews fight?” I asked. I didn’t know where that came from, but it shocked Justin and Eric into stopping. I think I was impatient to see the damn thing perform-after going a week without talking about it, I was set to burst. I’d almost told Sasha how my roommate had invented a time machine and was going back in time to kill Hitler. If I’d done so, it could have killed the time travel idea-but more likely would have merely put an abrupt end to the romantic evening.
Justin put on the old-fashioned German clothes Eric had found at an odds-and-ends dress shop favored by the local colleges for costume parties and Halloween. They were a little too big for Justin.
I sat down at the monitor and watched the green pixilated numbers tumble down the dark screen, still not fathoming what this clunky, jury-rigged technology had to do with time travel. We’d soon find out.
Max looked over my shoulder. “That’s not Berlin. That’s not even Germany.”
I shrugged; latitude and longitude weren’t my forte.
“Justin, you’re going to Vienna!” Max shouted over the rising noise from the machine. “Poisoning his paintbrushes?”
Eric belted Justin in and turned the two sets of mirrors on him, walling him in.
“Good luck,” Eric said. He took a deep breath. “Here we go.”
Eric cranked back on the hockey stick. The mirrors spun. Justin shook slightly in the chair.
“Maybe he’ll pay someone to do it,” Max said. “I know he doesn’t speak German, but money talks. He brought the schillings from his coin collection.”
“To buy what?” Suddenly, Eric’s face changed. I thought he was about to cry. Instead, he smiled. With more time I would have figured out what made this smile different: It wasn’t his usual snarky, superior upturning of lips, but a modest smile of profound satisfaction.
The mirrors slowed their rotation. The flashing and flickering ceased. The air smelled like burnt electricity.
With shaking hands, Eric pulled back the mirrors, revealing an empty seat.
Justin was gone.
Max was the first to speak, though it took some minutes. “You did it,” he said simply, looking at Eric with secular awe.
Eric himself didn’t seem particularly surprised.
“Will we know if Justin succeeds?” I asked.
“If he does, we probably won’t,” Eric said. “This time-track we’re on now will simply be erased from the space-time continuum.”
“Just like that?”
February 1985, alternate time stream
In a world resembling this one at first glance, Greta Kramer dies in a nursing home in Braunau, a town in Austria near the German border.
After the funeral, her grandson, Erich, prepares the house for the family’s arrival. Along one wall are stacks of photographs from the closets and shelves; there are many pictures of the many grandchildren.
There would be an estate sale, but first there would be reflection, for sorting out the mementos from Fraulein Greta’s life.
At the back of his grandmother’s clothes closet is a faded watercolor of an assemblage outside a church. Erich’s eyes flicker with remembrance. They are deep-set, highly intelligent eyes, resembling a pair seen elsewhere, but with a calmer, more contented cast.
“Teresa, come here.”
His wife, a bit younger, comes up beside him.
“This used to hang in the hallway. Grandmama said she and grandpapa were leaving when a young man came up with a painting he’d done of the ceremony.”
“She said it was common then. This was in the 1940s, before photography became affordable. She was a fortunate woman, you know, to live during that time. No wars, no depression.”
“But your grandmother was prettier than that,” Teresa says, pointing at the picture and giggling.
“Yes, the nose is not too good, is it?” Erich touches Teresa’s nose with his.
Teresa squints at the bottom right corner of the painting, reading the signature line aloud. “A. Hitler to his best patron, Justin. What a strange name,” Teresa says.
“No, silly. Justin. So modern.”
Outside, a car rolls over the rock driveway. “They’re coming.”
Erich lays the painting back against the wall. They stroll outside. Evening arrives, and with it a welter of brothers and sisters and cousins, to mark the long life of Greta Kramer.
Clay’s had short stories and poetry published in Poet Lore, The Santa Barbara Review, Burning Sky, Black Petals and Liquid Ohio. His home on the web is www.claywaters.com. He writes from Jersey City, NJ.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish