The Birthday Gift
by Elliot Richard Dorfman
It was a cold, windy November day. The dark bare branches stretched up to the ominous gray sky. There was a definite hint of snow in the air. Art sat alone in his den, looking out of the picture window at the dismal scene, and sighed.
“I’ll be sixty-five in a week,” he thought. “That’s supposed to begin my golden years, but they certainly seem to be starting off tarnished.”
A recent widower, he was very lonely without his wife, Connie. They had been married for more than forty years. All the exciting future plans he had made with her last June after retiring as circuit judge were now blown away. It still seemed inconceivable that she would die of a massive heart attack in the summer, especially since she had recently taken her annual physical exam and was told everything was fine.
In recent years, most of his friends had moved away to a warmer climate, but even at his age, he still liked the brisk cold winters. His only child, Betty, now thirty-five, kept badgering him to sell his house and live with her family in St. Louis.
“Come on, Dad,” Betty repeatedly told him. “Come stay with me and my family. I have two extra bedrooms. I don’t understand why you still want to live alone in such a big house!”
But each time she brought the subject up, he answered her the same way: “No way, Betty. I’m not going to give up this house with all of its memories. Besides, I’m not ready yet to turn into a doting old grandfather.”
Pinto, his miniature pinscher, came running in from the hallway and jumped into his lap.
“You’re now my closest pal,” he said, giving the little dog a kiss on the head. “Sure, I may get lonely without Connie or most of my friends around, but I will not give up my independence. It’s the only thing that keeps me going.”
It began snowing later that evening. The weather forecast predicted six inches, but that wasn’t a big deal for the Adirondack region where he lived. After dinner, Art walked his dog, then settled in for the night.
Around eleven-thirty, someone rang at the front door. Pinto began to bark loudly. Groggily, Arthur put on his robe and slippers before going to answer. Pinto dutifully followed his master.
A young man, no more than twenty, with large hazel eyes and a mop of golden hair, stood shaking at the door. A taxi took off behind him. He put down a large gray suitcase. “I’m a couple of hours late, but the train was delayed. Sorry to inconvenience you at this hour.”
“I have no idea what you are talking about, young man,” Art replied.
“I’m James McFarlin.”
“I rented a room here last week!”
“No, you didn’t. I don’t have a boarding house.”
“Isn’t this 216 South Meadows Street?”
Art shook his head. “No, this is 216 North Meadows Street. South Meadows is all the way across town.”
“Oh, I apologize. The taxi driver must have made a wrong turn.” The youngster began to cough. No doubt he was coming down with a bad cold. Art noticed that the kid was wearing a flimsy jacket and began feeling sorry for him.
Pinto sniffed the stranger, decided he liked him, and stood up, looking for attention.
“Pinto just complimented you. He doesn’t like too many people. I guess you must be a decent fellow. I usually don’t let in strangers, but I am going to take a chance with you. Anyway, if you stay out in the cold any longer with what you’re wearing, you’ll end up with pneumonia. Come inside and warm up. I’ll call another taxi.”
“Thanks, I appreciate that,” said James. Entering the house, his eyes widened with wonderment. “Wow. I can’t believe what I am seeing!”
“What’s the matter?” asked Art. “Haven’t you been in a house before?”
James’ face turned red. “Oh, excuse me. It’s just that I’ve never seen this kind of layout.”
“You haven’t? It’s not that much different from most houses. Where have you been living all your life, in a hut?” he quipped.
Art made a pot of fresh coffee, some baloney sandwiches, and took out half a chocolate cake from the refrigerator. James politely thanked him and almost attacked the sandwich. Obviously the guy had not eaten in quite a while. There was something familar about the boy. Perhaps, there was a kind of resemblance to this aging man when he was young. James reminded Art of the type of son he always wanted.
“What brings you to this small mountain town? Nothing very much happens here.”
“Well, I’m trying to locate some ancestors... I mean family. From my research, I was led to believe they might live around here.”
“Wow, they must be very old if you already consider them ancestors.”
“Oh, they’d be about your age or so.” From Art’s expression, James quickly realized the implication. “Forgive me. I didn’t mean to offend you! You’ve been very decent to me.”
Art laughed. “ It’s okay. I guess people who are my age must seem ancient to you.”
James turned red with embarrassment.
The two went into the living room. Suddenly, Art got an idea. It would certainly alleviate his loneliness. On impulse, he turned to James.
“Say, since you like my place so much, I am going to go out on a limb. You seem like a good kid. Why don’t you stay here with me while you’re in town? I’ve got an extra bedroom and maybe I could even help you find whoever you are looking for.”
James smiled. “Wonderful! How much would it cost for a room and meals?”
Art laughed again. “Nothing. You’ll be my guest. It will be great to have some company.”
James shook Art’s hand. “Thanks. It looks like I actually lucked out tonight.”
In the morning, Art woke up early to make breakfast for the two of them. Usually, he had only a cup of coffee but now there was a guest. Besides, today he had an appetite, like he used to have when Connie was alive. While preparing pancakes and sausages, Art looked out of the window and was surprised to see Pinto prancing around the snow with James. The two had quickly become pals.
“Time for breakfast,” Art called out from the kitchen door when everything was ready.
James’ shoes were soaking wet when he came in.
“Better give you a pair of extra boots I got in the closet. Think I’ll also throw in my old black coat. It’s much warmer than the one you’re wearing. In the meantime, better take your shoes off and wipe off your feet before you get a cold.”
James did as he was told and sat down at the table. “Oh, wow,” he exclaimed. “Look at all this food. A real breakfast. It smells so good!”
“And hopefully it will taste good, too. Don’t you ever eat breakfast at home?”
“Nope, I just gobble down a couple of nutrition pills to start the day.”
“Well, then, you’re in for a treat. Dig in and eat.”
After they finished, and the dishes were washed and put away, the two men took a stroll outside to work off some calories. Later, Art took James for a drive around the town. It was an enjoyable day. James was receptive to everything the older man said. He seemed curious about everything. Art didn’t think that youngsters of today were still that naive.
That evening Betty called her father and he told her about James. “Dad,” she said with a worried tone, “I think you’re acting foolish. You don’t know anything about this person you’ve invited to stay in your house. Appearances can be deceiving. What if he turns out to be dangerous? Please be careful. At least try and find out something more concrete about him.”
“Don’t worry, Sweetie,” her Dad assured her. “James is a nice guy. Everything will be fine.”
“Well, I’m going to call you every day until he leaves,” she said. “Pop, please consider my offer to move near me. I don’t like you being all alone in that big house.”
“Oh, please, Betty, stop worrying so much. Got to go now.”
He quickly hung up. Lately, her conversations with him were stressing him out. Going into the den, he found James intently watching the news on television. Pinto was near the fireplace, fast asleep.
“So much violence!”exclaimed James.
“Humanity never seems to learn,” replied Art.
“Not in your time, but someday it will change.”
“And how do you know that? I suppose you can see the future?”
James stood up and walked over to the window and looked out. After a moment he turned, taking a large breath: “Actually, yes.”
Art looked at James, now starting to wonder if he was missing a few marbles.
“No, I’m not nuts, Art. Sit down and I’ll explain.”
Art sat down. Perhaps I should have listened to my daughter, he thought.
“My coming to your house wasn’t a mistake, Art. Actually, it was you I was looking for.”
Art shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
“You are the relative I was looking for.”
“Yes,” James said, taking another big breath.“I’m your great-great-great-great grandson.”
Art immediately stood up. This guy was crazy!
“Please, don’t look at me as if I’m insane. Actually, you should be proud of me. I may be young, but I’m a top scientist from my era.”
“You mean you’re a genius?” his ancestral relative asked.
“Guess you can say that, my Great Grandad, times three. I am the first person to have discovered how to travel in time.”
“But I’ve read that scientists feel it’s impossible to return back to events that have already happened. Imagine the devastation you could cause the future if anything was changed. It would trigger a domino effect.”
“All nonsense. It’s very scientific and complex to explain, and I don’t think you would understand, even if I attempted to explain it to you in simple terms. Let’s just say that Nature created a safeguard that would block me from going into any situation that would negatively influence the future.”
“How do I know you’re not just making all this up?”
“Okay, let me show you something that will convince you.”
James pulled out of his pocket a small silver square box. He moved a little dial on it. “Here, hold this transporter box in your hand. I’ve set it to place you in my time for a few minutes.”
“Go ahead, don’t be afraid,” James said, smiling. “Come on, where’s your sense of adventure?”
Art took the instrument and immediately was transported to James’ world of the far future. High buildings with facades that perfectly fit the environment were carefully spaced apart. Many parks embellished the scene, and the air smelled fresh and invigorating. On the road, noiseless, multicolored, streamlined vehicles were moving a few inches off the ground. Art was able to get a quick glance of this amazing scene before he was zapped back to his own time.
“Wow,” he said, shaken by the experience. “Those vehicles certainly must cut down on pollution.”
“Oh, we haven’t used fossil fuels for ages. Pollution has been eradicated in my time. Well, have I persuaded you I am telling the truth?”
“I guess so,” said Art, “but if this was the first time you went back in time, why did you choose to see me first?”
“Well, I became interested in you when I was studying our family’s genealogy. I was going through old recordings, pictures and letters that had been kept, when I found your personal diary in the collection. I was so proud of all the accomplishments you achieved, but it broke my heart when I read how lonely your life became after the sudden death of your wife.”
“That’s really nice of you, James,” said Art, with a flash of grief. “But I guess it’s of my choosing. I could go and live with my daughter.”
“No, Art, you said it yourself, you’re too independent for that. It would break your spirit. Actually, I decided to come back to your time so I could help you. It’s going to be my birthday gift to you.”
“I don’t understand. What kind of birthday gift?”
“It’s a surprise,” James slowly said, looking directly into his ancestor’s eyes. “Now, please sit down in the armchair.”
Once seated, Pinto suddenly woke up and jumped into Art’s lap.
“I want you to look out the window and count to twenty backwards,” his great-grandson (three times over) requested.
Midway counting, Art suddenly became drowsy and fell asleep. He was awakened by Pinto’s barking.
“Art, I think Pinto needs a walk,” a gentle voice said behind him. Turning, he saw Connie, his wonderful wife of forty years, standing near the doorway.
Copyright © 2008 by Elliot Richard Dorfman