I’m halfway through my last shift at the Hotel Janus, thinking about a good year to retire, when the nursing home calls about Pearl. “If you want to see her,” the nurse on the other end of the phone says, “now would be a good time.”
“You all right?” Darryl asks when I hang up. He leans forward to better study my face. Darryl’s one of the other night concierges at the hotel. He started working here a little after me. He’s eyeballing retirement sometime late next year. If we get to next year. These days you never know.
We’ve worked together too long for Darryl not to know something’s up. His face darkens. “It’s Pearl, isn’t it?”
A nod is all I manage.
“Go,” Darryl says. “I’ll cover for you.”
“It’s your daughter, Leon.” Darryl sweeps his hand past the concierge desk, gesturing at all the hotel guests criss-crossing the brightly lit lobby. “This place doesn’t matter. You’re retiring tonight anyway.”
I start toward the revolving doors when Darryl asks the question everyone’s asked me since the calendar flipped over to my retirement year—the question I still don’t have an answer for. “You picked a year yet?”
A dozen numbers bounce around my head, none of them imbued with a particular aura of significance. I belt out the first string of digits that flows easily off the tongue, “Maybe 1959.”
“1959?” Judging by his expression, the year tastes sour in Darryl’s mouth.
I shrug. “As good a year as any, right? I’ll probably be dead by the late ’70s or ’80s. Doesn’t seem too bad. Maybe you can join me next year.”
Darryl shakes his head. “A Black guy in ’59? Think I’ll sit that one out.”
Truth is, I’ve never considered retiring to 1959. Then again, if you look at it a certain way, it doesn’t sound too bad. A guy like me—early 50s—I’d be dead way before Florida and New York City drown. Darryl’s got a point, though. There’s not much for a white guy to consider when it comes to retiring. Any year I end up choosing, I’ll make out all right. The problem is I have to choose by the end of my shift, and I still don’t have a clue where to go.
Tamara used to make all the important decisions for me. It made things easy. She’s the one who chose to move our family to Wichita when it became clear that Brooklyn was going to sink. Now here I am, walking the streets of America’s last great metropolis.
Another decision Tamara made, one I wasn’t so keen on, was taking our daughter to a different century. Sure, they only went back to 1992, but that’s a hell of a lot farther than I can reach.
Tamara took an early out from her job at the Climate Disaster Protection Agency and 1992’s all they offered her.
“I think I’m going to take it,” she told me one Friday when I stopped by to pick up Pearl for the weekend.
“Take the money, sure,” I said. “But you don’t have to take the year. I mean, ’92? You’ll still be around when shit starts getting bad.”
“Yeah, but not real bad. I could take Pearl. Give her a better life before she can remember any of this.”
“You’re just going to drop this on me?” I said, bouncing Pearl up and down in the crook of my arm. She giggled and pawed at my chin.
“Is there any better time?” Tamara kept her eyes locked on the carpet.
“A few more years, I can retire and pick any year I want. You guys are still on my insurance, so we can go together. We can take Pearl to the 1920s if we feel like it.”
“The ’20s? Seriously?”
“You know what I mean.” I sank into the sofa—a sofa that used to be ours but belonged to Tamara now—and sat Pearl on my knee. She squealed and clapped while I watched Tamara from across the room. “I’m not asking to get back together,” I said. “I just want you to wait. For Pearl’s sake.”
The following Friday, when I stopped by the house to pick Pearl up for the weekend again, they were gone. I refused to believe Tamara would take Pearl away, but then I received a letter at the Hotel Janus. The courier was young, sweaty from a night delivering letters from the past. He held a crinkled white envelope in his hand and waved it at me while confirming the name printed on my name tag. “I got a letter for you.” He glanced at the date stamped on the envelope. “From 1992.”
I waited until the courier left before I ripped the envelope open. Darryl feigned disinterest, putting on his best organizing-the-key-cards act.
The stationary folded inside the envelope was mostly blank. In the top left corner were two words penned in Tamara’s elegant script. I’d always been jealous of her handwriting, how it looked like those gorgeous letters you see preserved in museums, forlorn wives of the Civil War writing to their battle-weary husbands. Tamara always wrote like a woman displaced in time. Now she was.
That’s all the letter said.
A nurse takes me up to the intensive care unit and leads me through a door where my daughter waits, a shriveled thing confined to a bed with wires and tubes sprouting from her arms, chest, head and nose. I wish I could say she looks like the giggling toddler I remember, shades of that innocent child cemented in her face, but all I see is an old woman. Little white hairs cling to a vein-streaked scalp. I pull a chair up next to the bed. The heart monitor beeps slow and irregular, each faint chime a measure of her withering spirit. I take her hand into mine and hate the way her skin feels—wrinkled, leathery, cold. Nothing like the soft, small hands whose tiny fingernails I used to trim. I let go of Pearl’s hand and stare at the floor, disgusted with myself—disgusted by how much Pearl disgusts me.
I want to love this old woman, this geriatric doppelganger the nurses swear is my daughter. A daughter thirty-two years older than me. No parent should outlive their child, but in this case I’m not sure I outlived Pearl. Only time will prove that. Her death certificate will claim she was born on March 5th, 2064, died September 18th, 2073—aged 86 years. Don’t do the math. It never checks out these days.
An awful croaking noise rattles past Pearl’s mummified lips. A sound terrible enough to draw the nurse’s attention. Both her and I await the heart monitor’s screeching finale, but all it proves to be is a breath; a moistureless gasp from a pair of struggling lungs. Pearl’s head rolls to one side. She opens her eyes and stares at me. I see it now—that trace of the child I lost to another time. Those aquamarine irises as mesmerizing and vibrant as I remember. Eyes passed down by her mother.
“Pearl,” I caw. Tears chase after my words.
“Oh,” she wheezes, “you look like the meter man.”
Those were Pearl’s last words. She died an hour later. You got to give it to the human race. We perfected time travel but we still can’t save a planet from overheating or protect a person’s brain from the volcanic ash of Alzheimer’s. I didn’t expect Pearl to remember me, but I hoped she might.
I make it back to the Hotel Janus with an hour left on my shift. Darryl is still behind the concierge desk. When he sees me I can tell by the muscles twitching in his face he doesn’t know what kind of expression to greet me with. First he goes for a smile, realizes that might be in bad taste, and tries something a little more somber. A middle aged couple approaching the desk relieves him of his quandary.
“And what room will you be traveling through this evening?” Darryl asks as I slip behind the desk. He’s put on his best talking-to-the-guests voice that all us concierges rely on. A little softer, bland, and friendlier than we’d like.
“1885,” the husband answers. He and his wife have dressed for the occasion. She wears a shimmery gown and he’s put on his best tuxedo a few years out of style. The sugary stench of wealth wafts off them. They can afford to abscond to any year they desire, retirement plan or not.
“A fine year,” Darryl says with a rigid smile. He slides a key card across the desk. “Use the third elevator on your left and take it all the way up to the 114th floor.”
“Thank you,” the husband says, stuffing the key card into his tux jacket.
“There’s period accurate clothes in the wardrobe if you need them.” When the couple’s out of earshot Darryl turns and grins. “Those stuffy ass rich people will be dead from cholera in two weeks.”
It’s the first time I’ve laughed all night.
At the end of my shift, the manager calls me to his office to congratulate me on a long career at the Hotel Janus. “We’ll miss you here,” he says. He reaches under his desk and hauls up a big leather briefcase and sets it in front of me. He flicks open the lid and turns the stacks of bills so I can inspect them, the spectral eyes of Andrew Jackson and Benjamin Franklin glaring back at me.
“Your pension. Not a single bill’s minted before 1992.” The manager’s face scrunches at the year and he adds, “You’re sure that’s where you want to retire? You can pick any year, you know.”
“I’ll be dead before most of the real bad stuff happens,” I tell him, parroting Tamara. I swallow and close the briefcase. “Hopefully.”
The manager extends his hand across the desk, waiting for a shake. “It’s been a pleasure.”
I take the briefcase up to the 208th floor and use a key card I’ve given out to a million guests to unlock a door marked 1992. The hotel room looks like any other. A bathroom with a faux marble floor, a queen sized bed with sheets neatly tucked under the mattress, television mounted to the wall, a wardrobe stocked with clothes I can’t believe were ever fashionable. The only difference compared to your average hotel room is the door where a window should be. A big steel contraption that looks like it might lead to a walk-in freezer. A placard suctioned to the door’s surface says ENJOY YOUR NEW LIFE. The handle is cold. It reminds me of Pearl’s wrinkled hand.
A single lamp on a bedside table bathes everything in soft orange light. The air conditioner blows air cooler than the Earth’s felt in years. I’ve never set foot in this room until now, and yet I’m taking it all in as if it’s a house I’ll never see again. I can’t say I’ll miss watching the world slide further into disrepair each day, but it’s bittersweet to abandon it like this. It feels like giving up, which I suppose it is, but that doesn’t stop me from opening the big steel door and stepping into a wash of white light on the other side.
Ten years. That’s how long it takes me to track down Pearl and Tamara. No one prepared me for how hard it would be to locate someone in the 1990s, especially those born decades in the future. I find them in 2002—eighteen years before my own birth—outside of St. Louis, Missouri.
Knocking on the door and yelling SURPRISE! doesn’t seem like a great idea. I stop at a department store on the way to St. Louis and buy a safety vest. From the office supply section, I grab a clipboard. I’ll pretend to be somebody from the electric company, reading the house’s power meter. Pearl gave me the idea.
Tamara catches me the first time I come to read the meter. She walks out of the house, laughing at something a man inside said. Her smile drains to a tight-lipped stare when she sees me in the front yard, pretending to pencil the meter’s readings on my clipboard.
“What are you doing here?”
I smile, a gesture she refuses to repay. “I’m reading the meter.”
“You look old.”
“You look young still. Hasn’t been as long for you, I guess.”
“You shouldn’t have retired here,” she says. “You could have picked any year.”
“I watched her die. I was there, I mean. Alzheimer’s. She—”
“God dammit, don’t tell me any of that. I don’t want to know.”
A shiny, diamond-crusted ring sits on her finger. I hear a man’s voice inside the house again. “Did you remarry?”
Tamara crosses her arms, hiding the ring in her armpit. “Just engaged. We haven’t picked a date yet.”
“Is he from this time?” I say. “Or did he retire here too?”
“He doesn’t know anything about where I came from. And it needs to stay that way, which is another reason you shouldn’t be here.”
“I want to see her.”
Tamara shakes her head. Tears collect in her eyes. “That’s a bad idea. She doesn’t remember you. She’s twelve now. She—”
“She does remember me. When I was there, at the nursing home—”
Tamara presses her hand against my chest, her palm nudging my heart away. “Just go home, Leon. Enjoy your retirement.”
Three weeks later, I return to read the meter, relieved Tamara’s car isn’t parked in the driveway. I’m pretending to work when a voice from behind asks, “What are you doing?”
The sound of her voice holds me in place for a while. I laugh when I turn around because it’s a better option than crying. The little girl in front of me straddles a yellow bicycle. Her aquamarine eyes blink behind a pair of thick glasses. Sandy hair dangles past her bony shoulders. She reminds me not of the toddler taken from me, but of that old woman whose frigid hand I held as she drifted into death.
“I’m reading the meter,” I tell her, my voice weak and shaky. I swallow and try to sound stronger than I feel. “To see how much electricity the house is using.”
“My mom says people use too much electricity. That one day it’s really going to hurt the planet.”
I turn away from Pearl and pretend to jot down more notes from the meter so she can’t see the tears escape my eyes. Somehow, she’ll remember this moment. Decades from now, on the verge of dying, her mind an amnesic desert, this interaction, for whatever reason, will be a sprig that rises from the barren soil of her brain, a fleeting remembrance to cling to as oblivion closes in around her. You look like the meter man.
“Your mom sounds like a smart woman,” I say.
I come to read the meter once a month. It’s a long drive, Wichita to St. Louis. Most times I don’t see Pearl, but when I do she waves and says, “Hi, meter man.” I wave back. This is what Tamara and I agree on. I pretend not to know Tamara, and I pay her husband quick nods whenever I see him; he responds with quicker waves.
One day, after watching Pearl from a distance evolve into a young woman, I stop by to read the meter and Tamara, with streaks of gray swirled through her hair, tells me Pearl’s left for college. I go home and toss my clipboard in the trash. Hopefully I’ll be dead in another ten or so years, right around the time people start to augur the tea leaves of humanity’s demise.
I’m happy for Pearl, for the life she has ahead of her, whether I know the shape of it or not. I don’t fret over seeing her again because I know I will, decades from now after I’ve died, in her future and in my past. She’ll tell me I look like the meter man. I’ll see her again.