Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, January 14, 2022

The Hourglass

Folks who have read a lot of my stories will recognize Flanagan's Irish Pub as a setting for a number of different scenes, and the friendly blonde bartender Valerie who works there has shown up as a recurring minor character in several of my books and short stories.  It's based on a real pub -- the Rongovian Embassy to the United States, in Trumansburg, New York -- now several years defunct, but a fixture for decades in this part of the Finger Lakes.

The idea for "The Hourglass" came to me out of the blue one October day, as I was picturing the interior of the Rongo (as locals called it), and suddenly I had a powerful image of two twenty-somethings, strangers, coming into the bar and both ordering a pint of Guinness.  This starts a conversation... about what? I had to write the story to find out.

The result is a story-within-a-story that is one of the twistiest things I've ever written, and I submit it to you for this week's Fiction Friday, along with a question: what do you think happened at the end?


The Hourglass

Chad Tarlow consulted his watch.  Seven thirty.  Plenty of time for a pint.  Only one, as usual, both because the beer he liked was expensive, and also because he needed to be lucid when he got back to his apartment.  He still had about five hours of reading and writing to do for his graduate classes, and he’d seen the results of writing papers in an alcohol-induced fog.  He only had two semesters left and he’d have his master’s degree and his teaching license.  No sense screwing it up now.

He sat at the bar, and gave a smile to Valerie, the cute bartender.  Valerie, he knew, was taken, in a long-term relationship with a guy who worked for the college as some kind of environmental researcher.  No use to hit on her.  He did a slow look around the bar, to see if there were any other prospects, but Flanagan’s was pretty dead. Oh, well, it was not like he had time for a girlfriend anyhow.  He sighed, and turned back to find a foamy pint of Guinness waiting for him.

“Saw you come in,” Valerie said, grinning and wiping her hands on a towel.

“I’m getting predictable.” 

“Nothing wrong with knowing what you like.”  She headed off to the other end of the bar to pour a drink for an elderly man who looked like he’d already had one too many.

The door opened, letting in a rush of cool autumn air, and a few dead leaves.  Chad looked up from his pint and saw, with a pang of disappointment, that the newcomer was a young man.  He was perhaps twenty-five, with tousled curly hair, dark eyes, and an angular jaw that was in need of a shave.  He stopped for a moment, and glanced around the place as if looking for someone.

No single women here tonight, bud.  Hope you weren’t counting on getting any.

The man seemed to consider leaving, then with a little shrug came up to the bar, shucked his windbreaker and woolen scarf, and hung them over the back of the barstool two down from where Chad sat.  Valerie came over wearing her usual friendly smile.  “What can I get you?” 

“You have Guinness on tap?”


“A pint, then.”  He slid a ten-dollar bill toward her and sat down, leaning forward, elbows on the bar.

She drew the pint, and while it was settling she gave him his change.  “You from around here?  Haven’t seen you in here before.”

“I live in Skaneateles.  My first time in here.”

She slid the pint toward him. “Nice town, Skaneateles.” 

“That it is.”

Valerie went to attend to the elderly gentleman, who was waving at her in a rather woozy fashion, leaving Chad and the newcomer with their pints and the awkward silence that always descends between people who are strangers but who are forced to be near each other by circumstance.

“What do you do in Skaneateles?”  Chad finally said, feeling that he couldn’t just sit there without saying anything, drink his beer, and then leave.  But once said, it sounded ridiculous – an empty sentence, like “Have a nice day.”

But the newcomer smiled faintly, and said, “I’m a writer.”

“Really?  What do you write?”

“Novels.  Science fiction, mainly, and some fantasy.  Mostly speculative stuff.”

“That’s cool.”  Chad swiveled a little towards him.  “I’ve always wondered how writers think of their plots.  Especially you science fiction guys.  I mean, you not only have to make up your plot and characters and all, you have to invent a whole world.”

The man smiled again, and took a sip of his pint. “I get asked that a lot.  By the way, my name’s Aaron.”  He extended his hand, which Chad shook.

“Chad.  I’m a grad student in education.  Heading toward teaching physics in high school – provided, of course, that I can get a job.”

Aaron nodded.  “Not easy, these days.”

“But you work from home.  Pretty cool.  You just write stories, and your customers come to you.”

He looked down.  “Something like that.”  He glanced over at the window for a moment, again seeming like he was looking for something or someone.  Then he turned back toward Chad.  “It’s usually the plots that get me stuck.  It can take a long time to work out plot points, because in science fiction, everything’s got to hang together.  The readers immediately pick up on it if there’s an inconsistency.”

“How do you work it out when you get stuck?”

Aaron shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Usually the solution just comes to me sooner or later.  I’m not sure from where.  But when I get badly stuck, sometimes it takes weeks to figure my way through it.”  He paused.  “In fact, I’m trying to work something out right now.  It’s why I went for a drive today – to try to clear my brain and see if I could figure out how the story should go.”

“What are you stuck on?” 

“You want me to tell you?” Aaron's dark eyebrows lifted a little.  “I don’t want to bore you.”

“It won’t bore me.  Look, dude, I have several hours of reading educational philosophy when I get home.  Anything you could come up with would be fascinating by comparison.”

Aaron laughed.  “All right.  It’s a time travel story.”


“But the time travel isn’t really the point.  I mean, it’s not like The Time Machine, where it went into the fictional technology and all.  Even though it depends on being able to reverse the hourglass, this story focuses more on an ethical dilemma.  And I want to make sure that the story works out the right way.  You know, not corny or trite.  And I’m not sure what to do.”

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Michael Himbeault, Hourglass , CC BY 2.0]

“So, when does the character travel to?”

Aaron took another pull on his pint.  “Here’s the deal.  The main character is a nice guy, but he had a really shitty childhood.  His mother was a complete whackjob.  Borderline personality, controlling, manipulative.”  He gestured with one hand.  “The kind of woman who should never be allowed to have children.  But like a lot of borderlines, she appeared normal enough on first glance.  In fact, she was kind of a magnetic personality.  Most people figured out soon enough that she was psycho.  She lost job after job, and so on.  And made her son’s life miserable.”

“Poor kid,” Chad said.

“Right?  The main character’s father was a decent guy, kept trying to help his wife, even though she was kind of beyond help, and stayed in the marriage to shield his son as much as he could.  But the mom was nuts enough that it didn’t really help.  And when the main character was seventeen, his mom had a total flip-out and killed his dad.  She ended up in jail.”

“Wow.  Seriously heavy stuff.”

“Yup.  So, anyway, that’s the setup.  That’s all in the past, in the story.  The reader just finds out about it in the first few chapters.  The son grows up, and he’s got a shitload of baggage from what he went through as a kid.  I mean, graduating from high school – mom’s in jail for killing dad.  The kind of thing most kids never have to deal with.”

“I hope not.  I don’t know what I’d do if something like that happened to one of my students.”

“I guess it happens sometimes.  Teachers got to deal with all sorts of stuff they wish they’d never had to see.  In fact, in the story, it’s the main character’s teachers, and some of his dad’s relatives, that save him.  So, anyway, he grows up, mostly normal, but has all of this psychotic stuff in his past.  Then, time travel is invented.  Scientists find a way to send people backwards, forwards, whatever you want.  And the guy gets an idea; what if he goes back in time, and stops his mom from meeting his father?”

“Seriously?  Like Back to the Future, only in reverse?”

Aaron smiled.  “Sort of like that.  He knows that if he does that, he’ll save his father from twenty years in a horrible relationship, that will end with his being shot to death by the woman he’d married.  But of course, you see the dilemma.”

“If he succeeds, he’ll cease to exist.”

Aaron nodded.  “And I have to be able to answer the question, confidently enough that what my character does makes sense.  You know?  If I’m not sure, I won’t be able to write it convincingly.  So, I guess the question is: do you save someone decades of unhappiness and an early death, at the cost of your own life?  Or do you save your own life even if it means someone you care about will be miserable?”

“The father might have been just as miserable had he not met the mom,” Chad said.  “You never know.”

“That’s true.  But even so.  What should he do?”  Aaron held up one hand, palm upwards.  “It’s just a story, after all.  I can make it come out whatever way I want.”

“Is the main character happy with his life?  I mean, if he’s screwed up himself, maybe he’d be better off, you know… not existing.  Kind of a clean suicide.”

“I didn’t want to make it that clear-cut.  That seemed too corny.  Like, he’s just wanting out, so he goes back in time to kill himself painlessly and save dad the trauma as an added benefit.  In the story, he’s kind of ordinary.  Some days good, some days bad.  He’s got some memories and shit to deal with, yeah – but he’s not, like, despondent or anything.”

“Wow,” Chad said.  “That’s a really interesting question.  I can see why you’re stuck.”

Aaron smiled, and took another drink.  “A puzzler, isn’t it?”

“Well, here’s an idea.  Maybe he should go back in time, you know… and present the idea to the dad.  Tell him what is going to happen.  Let the dad decide.”

“That’s kind of a cop-out.”

“Yeah, but, you know, see if the dad thinks all the misery would be worth it, to have a kid.”

“How could the dad judge that?  You know, condemn himself to twenty years of misery, and knowing he’d be killed at the end of it by the woman he’d married?  Do you really think anyone would be willing to do that voluntarily?”

“I don’t know,” Chad said.  “Maybe it’s a good thing we don’t know our futures.”

“Believe me,” Aaron responded, with some vigor, “since I started working on this story, I’ve thought about that many times.”

Chad finished his pint.  “Well, I’ve got to get going.”

“Educational philosophy waits for no man.”  Aaron gave him a smile.

“Nope.  And, with luck, once I’m actually teaching I’ll never have to read this crap again.”

This got a laugh. “That’s why I stick to writing science fiction.  People actually want to read it.”

Chad stood up, and shook Aaron’s hand.  “Good luck with your story.  I think it’s an interesting idea.  I’m sure you’ll work it out.”

“I hope so,” Aaron said.

Chad picked up his backpack from next to the barstool, and said goodbye to Valerie.  As he was approaching the door, it opened, admitting another gust of cool air.  A woman walked in – slim, with shoulder-length brown hair and sparkling blue eyes.  She glanced his way, and smiled.

No boyfriend in tow.  Okay, did he really need to stop at one pint?  He had time for another, right?

Chad opened his mouth to say something to her – his usual pickup line was, “Can I buy you a drink, or would you prefer to break my heart?”, which worked about fifty percent of the time, and in the other half of the cases just resulted in an eyeroll.  But something in him seemed to stall.  The words would not form, and the smile died on his lips.

The woman walked past him, and up to the bar. Chad turned to watch her.  And up on a shelf, behind the bar, was something he had never noticed before – a large hourglass in an ornate wooden frame, filled with white sand.  Valerie turned away from the elderly gentleman, who was finally paying his tab and seemed to be trying to determine if he could successfully stand up.  The woman sat down on one of the barstools at the otherwise empty bar, crossed her legs at the ankles, and rested her elbows on the polished mahogany top, smiling at Valerie and saying something too quietly for Chad to hear.  Valerie smiled, and turned – and then picked up the hourglass and flipped it over.

Chad watched the stream of sand spilling downwards for a moment, a distant expression on his face, like someone just waked from dreaming.  Then he walked out, alone, into the windy October night.


Like many people, I've always been interested in Roman history, and read such classics as Tacitus's Annals of Imperial Rome and Suetonius's The Twelve Caesars with a combination of fascination and horror.  (And an awareness that both authors were hardly unbiased observers.)  Fictionalized accounts such as Robert Graves's I, Claudius and Claudius the God further brought to life these figures from ancient history.

One thing that is striking about the accounts of the Roman Empire is how dangerous it was to be in power.  Very few of the emperors of Rome died peaceful deaths; a good many of them were murdered, often by their own family members.  Claudius, in fact, seems to have been poisoned by his fourth wife, Agrippina, mother of the infamous Nero.

It's always made me wonder what could possibly be so attractive about achieving power that comes with such an enormous risk.  This is the subject of Mary Beard's book Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern, which considers the lives of autocrats past and present through the lens of the art they inspired -- whether flattering or deliberately unflattering.

It's a fascinating look at how the search for power has driven history, and the cost it exacted on both the powerful and their subjects.  If you're a history buff, put this interesting and provocative book on your to-read list.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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