I had worked on my recently released story collection, Elephants in Our Bedroom, for over ten years upon its release in early 2009. For almost as long as I've been writing, that collection has been forming, from the first story I wrote back in 1997, all the way until the day the final copy was due at the end of 2008. After the book's publication, I busied myself giving readings, speaking to classes, and glad-handing my supporters, all of the business that goes into promoting a new book. I knew, though, that I had to keep writing, that even though my dream of publishing a book had come to fruition, my goals as a writer were not yet reached. I had more stories to tell.
As much as I could, I wrote new stories and worked on a novel, but there were some post-partum issues, as the project I'd had for so many years had matured and I had no other choice but to move on. I also felt pressure to repeat my success, and along the way, my confidence faltered. I wanted, at all costs, to avoid a sophomore slump, to be able to write at the same level, and better, than I had for my first collection.
Receiving this accolade from NEA has given me life anew. As work from my new collection and my novel–in-progress were both included in my application manuscript, the fact that such an important panel had affirmed this work revitalized me in every way. I needed a bump, and the NEA has bumped me, and then some. My second story collection is near completion, while I have made significant progress on my novel, which I will finish with on location in Chicago the next two summers, something I would never have been able to do without the generosity of the NEA.
From the short story "The Time Traveler Laments"
The time traveler tracks the origin of the pineapple, hoping to find out what went wrong. She'd never been to Hawai'i, before or during her journey, nowhere near. How could this have happened? Of course, she just assumes Hawai'i is where the pineapple was born--it's not like she can check. Not anymore. Before, she never considered what she would do if something went wrong, let alone how she would fix it when she got back. Now she's finding out.
In truth, the time traveler never expected to be back. Upon departure, she thought of three possibilities.
1. Nothing, or close to nothing, would change.
2. She would cease to exist immediately upon her craft's appearance in another time. The butterfly theory, she dubs it.
3. Something else she couldn't think of.
Assuming #2 the likely case, the time traveler forewent plans for her return, didn't even get someone to water her plants. Since #1 came true instead, she has to deal with the consequences. She knows she has gotten off easy in this department, but still, she wishes there was something she could do. The world deserves pineapple. She deserves pineapple.
And pineapple deserves the world.
Pineapple is not alone. As the weeks go by and the time traveler returns to the routine she once knew, the scant changes begin to pile up. Brad Pitt, for one, sports a scar beneath his left eye, from what she doesn't know, and feels too guilty to find out. Lobsters turn green instead of red when boiled, but otherwise taste the same. James Buchanan took a wife, but only after leaving office. The U.S. adopted the British –our as an ending for words like "color" and "favor," and Italian and Portuguese are pretty much switched. Johnny Cash grew a mustache and kept it most of his life, and the Pyramids at Giza are now exactly 300 yards down river. A marathon is now just over 30 miles, and most every kind of exotic meat tastes like beef, not chicken.
As time marches on, the time traveler begins to wonder what really is different and what she imagines to be different. She looks at a stoplight and wonders if green was always on the bottom or if that's new. Lexington is the capital of Kentucky, she's sure, though for some reason, Frankfort calls out to her. She telephones her mom in Fresno and asks when her birthday is, but has to look up the phone number, not a single digit popping in her head. Nothing seems the same as it used to be, even though most everything probably is. But like with pineapple, there's no way to tell. Only one dictionary, only one set of encyclopedias, and only one Internet exist; there are no pre-trip and post-trip versions. The time traveler will either have to sort it all out, or stop thinking about it. She hopes for the latter, but knows she does not have the willpower. She wants to know. She has a need. It's why she built the machine in the first place.
"The Time Traveler Laments" first appeared in The Cincinnati Review
Michael Czyzniejewski grew up in Chicago and its outlying suburbs and now teaches at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where he also serves as Editor-in-Chief of Mid-American Review. His stories have appeared in more than fifty literary journals and anthologies, while his debut collection, Elephants in Our Bedroom, was released by Dzanc Books in 2009. Since 1989, he has also worked as a vendor at Wrigley Field, and this summer, he will live in Wrigleyville and work on a novel based on his experiences selling beer during Cubs games.
Photo by Karen Craigo