At the Grave of Sadie Thorpe

By Miles Harvey

Featured Art: A Graveyard and Steel Mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania by Walker Evans

Time forks, perpetually, into countless futures. . . . In most of these times, we do not exist;
in some, you exist but I do not; in others, I do and you do not; in others still, we both do.
—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths”

“Was she a relative of yours?” the old man asks, leading me toward your grave.

“Well, not exactly,” I begin to reply. “She—”but then I pause. In the middle of my sentence, in the middle of my life, in the middle of some small-town cemetery in the middle of the Midwest, I pause, unable to explain who you are or why I’m here. What I would tell the man, if it didn’t sound so absurd, is that although I am not your descendant, although I only recently learned of your existence, although you barely left a mark on the world, and although your corpse was buried here more than forty years before I was born, I can’t get you out of my mind. What I would recount, if I could figure out a simple way to do it, is the history of happenstance that connects me to you across the years, a bond that at this moment feels almost as strong as the ties of blood. What I would confess, if I wasn’t worried he’d laugh in my face, is that I woke up this morning, a couple months shy of my fiftieth birthday, certain I had to drive more than one-hundred miles from Chicago to visit a total stranger’s grave in this tiny hamlet of Dana, Illinois.

A dog barks in the heat of this August afternoon. A killdeer swoops in on slender wings, offering its distinctive call: kill-dee, dee-dee-dee, kill-dee, deedee-dee. And still I pause.

“It’s a long story,” I say at last.

The old man doesn’t press me for details. Having taken care of this graveyard for more than two decades, he must know that the place is full of long stories—tales that haunt the living for decades after their protagonists have vanished beneath the soil. And perhaps he also realizes that people don’t come here to recite those stories but to reckon with them. So I follow him through the tombstones, searching for the one marked Sadie Thorpe.

The first time I saw that name was in the pages of a court document from 1932. I had visited the regional office of the National Archives in Chicago to hunt down information about my maternal grandfather, who was convicted of bank embezzlement during the Great Depression. My goal was to figure out whether he was guilty, as the judge who sentenced him to the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary apparently believed, or a fall guy, as my mother has always insisted. I never solved that mystery, but I did stumble upon another one, a story that would jostle my notions of self.

Like a lot of Americans who grew up in the late twentieth century, with its TV culture and its massive migration from small towns and cities into suburbs such as mine, I had never learned much about my roots. I knew that my grandfather was of German descent (though I did not know when his family emigrated), that he grew up in Iowa (though I did not know what town), that he worked for a railroad (though I did not know which one), that he settled in my future home of Downers Grove, Illinois (though I did not know when), that he took a job at a bank and wound up in prison (though I did not know for how long), and that he died years before I was born (though I did not know how many). I was also aware he had been married once before my grandmother came along, but I didn’t know who the woman was or what happened to her. Not even my mother knew her name.

But at the National Archives, I discovered that when it comes to genealogical research, having a felon for a grandfather can be a godsend. Among the court documents was a twelve-page biography, prepared by attorneys for the accused, full of rich details about his life. I learned, for example, that in 1901 at age fourteen, having just graduated from grade school in the eastern Iowa town of New Vienna he “sought and obtained employment” with a certain F.X. Gerken, “in whose business he worked at the cooper trade for two years,” and that after laboring as a farmhand for a couple of years, he “decided to improve his ability,” landing a job with the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad for $25 a month.

And then, on page three, I met you.

My grandfather, according to the document, “was united in marriage on the 10th day of June, 1910, to Sadie Thorpe, of Dana, Illinois.” I skimmed forward through that dense text, rushing past the details of your married life to learn what became of you in the end. In the fall of 1918, during the height of an epidemic that killed more Americans than all the wars of the twentieth century combined, you fell ill with what was then known as the Spanish flu. Although many of its victims expired soon after infection, the virus seems to have worked more slowly on you. Nonetheless, your “illness continued from day to day developing into a serious case.” You died on Christmas day, two weeks shy of your
fortieth birthday.

The implications of all this did not hit me right away. But then one afternoon, as I read back over that document, the back of my neck suddenly went cold. I had been aware of my own good fortune—loving parents, a moderately happy childhood, a supportive brother, a wife and two children who offered constant proof of why life was worth living, friends who were in it for the long haul, a writing and teaching career that I could describe without irony as a calling. When people said I was a lucky man, which happened with some regularity, I would knock on wood and nod in agreement, never giving it too much thought. But now I saw that my luck did not just appear from the blue. It grew straight out of someone else’s suffering and misfortune. Between twenty million and one-hundred million people died in the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918, and if you had not been among them I would never have been born.

My mother came into the world a little over five years after you left it. By her own estimate, she has lived a “long, long time,” her days more than doubling yours. But now, at age eighty-six, she, too, is reaching the final chapter, her body shriveled by osteoporosis and arthritis, her mind fogged by dementia, her ability to communicate hampered by severe hearing loss, her horizons narrowed to her own four walls.

Until she was almost eighty she led an energetic existence, socializing with friends and maintaining her career as a travel agent while working what amounted to a second job as a political activist and Democratic Party functionary. Now, however, she requires twenty-four-hour care. When I visit her in the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove, we sit on the front porch of the rickety Victorian where she’s lived for almost fifty years, building a life with my father, who died in 1986, and raising two sons. As squirrels chase each other around the yard, she complains about the strangers who now feed her and bathe her and follow her from room to room to make sure she doesn’t fall. “It’s like rotting in a prison,” she says in a conspiratorial whisper so her attendant doesn’t hear. “It’s like being locked up.”

I spend hours with her on that porch. She took care of me when I couldn’t take care of myself, and now it’s my turn to return the favor. This, I believe, is a privilege as much as an obligation, a hard kind of good luck. Still, it can feel overwhelming, all the shuttling back and forth between doctors, all the time spent arranging her affairs and handling her finances, all the worry about her happiness and health, both of which, I know, are beyond recovery. I never feel like an adequate son anymore, much less a good husband to my wife or father to my children or teacher to my students. And lately I’ve begun to doubt myself as a writer, my opportunities to sit quietly at the keyboard far less frequent than in the past. With mounting debts and diminishing sleep, I’ve never worked harder to accomplish less.

And today I’m accomplishing nothing at all. After putting off plans to get some writing done and asking my wife, once again, to take care of the kids on a beautiful day, I feel furious with myself for allowing you to take over my imagination, to bore under my skin in ways I still can’t quite pin down.

The man leading me to your headstone is Carl Klendworth, a robust seventy-four-year-old with a compact build, animated blue-gray eyes and the boot-leather skin of someone who has spent decades outdoors. He lives on the far end of the village, which, in a place this size, also means that he lives only a few blocks from the center of town. Beyond his property, on which cows wander slowly through the shade, is the cemetery, and beyond that sits a field of soybeans and then a seemingly endless vista of corn, bisected by high-tension power lines, which fade into a vanishing point on the horizon.

As we weave our way through the headstones, Klendworth stops and gestures to a grave. “This is my grandmother,” he says. “Her maiden name was Thorpe, too.”

Addie Marshall, 1875-1950. That first name sounds strangely familiar, so I stop and check my notes. For some time now, I’ve been trolling libraries, archives and databases in an effort to piece together the fragments of your past. Sure enough, according to the 1880 federal census, this same Addie Marshall was your older sister.

I had expected that finding information about an obscure person, dead for nearly a century, would be tough going. But my research has been full of lucky breaks, clues that keep popping up as if someone is leaving them in my path. And now it’s happening again. The first person I speak to in Dana—a man I greeted in passing as he mowed his grass—turns out to be one of your close relatives.

“Is that so?” Carl Klendworth says with a surprised chuckle, when I inform him the woman I am looking for is his great aunt. He’s clearly never heard of you. I ask him if he remembers any stories about some relative who died in the flu epidemic. He grew up in his grandmother’s house, he tells me, so he’s listened to plenty of family lore. “But no, I can’t recall anyone ever mentioning anything like that.”

It occurs to me that I may be the last person alive who knows your story. And then it occurs to me that by writing it down, I can offer some sort of cosmic recompense—a payback, however overdue and inadequate, for the great gift I have received at your expense.

Your life ran its course along train tracks. This very town owes its name to a certain Thomas Dana, superintendent of the Chicago, Pekin and Southwestern Railroad, which laid a roadbed through the prairies of Central Illinois in 1873. Before the arrival of those rails, your village didn’t even exist—but by the time you were born just six years later, Dana could boast two grain elevators, six stores, a church, a mill and a population of two-hundred-fifty.

The boom would end almost as soon as it began. Beset by a series of financial troubles, the railroad struggled to stay in business from the start. Even so, investors and local boosters clung to their dream of extending the line to St. Louis and beyond. The first transcontinental railroad had been completed only a few years earlier, and everyone now knew of the astronomical fortunes being made by moving people and goods west and raw materials east. Unfortunately, the line through Dana had been “laid with inferior rails, which together with a defective roadbed, made it wholly inadequate for the traffic of a transcontinental system,” according to one chronicler. When the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe purchased the railroad in the late 1880s, linking Chicago with the Pacific Coast, it laid new tracks north of town, bypassing Dana by less than five miles. Cut from the umbilical cord of national commerce and relegated to a quiet stop along a rural branch line, the town lost its only reason to exist.

By the time you were a teenager, a mood of despair must have already started to drift through the village, as it dawned on residents that history had passed them by along with the Santa Fe. Perhaps like countless other kids who grew up in dead-end towns, you dreamed of a different future, a different place to call home. But you were stuck. Your mother was ill, so you remained in Dana to take care of her “with unfailing love and tenderness,” as your obituary would later put it. You were twenty-seven—still a young woman, but barely so by the standards of the day—before she died and you could start your own life.

Across the road from the cemetery looms the ruin of what was once the Dana Township High School, a three-story, red-brick building with smashed windows, a boarded door and a collapsed roof. At one time, it must have embodied the town’s hopes for the future; now it’s a crumbling reminder of the lost past.

“The death of family farming,” explains Carl Klendworth, “has drained this place of young people.”

Only one-hundred-fifty-nine souls live here now, down by almost half from when you were growing up over a century ago. The trains no longer run to Dana. Even the tracks are gone. The Interstate Highway System never arrived. Other nearby towns landed universities and prisons; Dana’s main industries are a bar (“The Best Little Place in the Middle of Nowhere,” according to its sign) and a sleepy establishment called the Gold Dust Diner, its very name a memento of the failed dreams and missed chances that make up the story of the town that time forgot.

Your escape was made possible by the railroads. In your late twenties, you moved to Valparaiso, Indiana, home of Dodge’s Institute of Telegraphy, one of the largest and best-known telegraph and railway instruction schools in the country. The telegraph was at that time vital to the communication system of the nation’s railroads. And as one historian observed, “telegraphy was one of the first white-collar jobs where women could compete on a more or less equal basis with men.”

By April 29, 1910—the date when a census-taker came to your door—you were describing yourself as a “telegraph operator” and living on Main Street in the western Chicago suburb Downers Grove, my future hometown. In an issue of the Chicago Tribune from the following month, your name appeared in a story about women who worked in signal boxes—those little buildings along the tracks making possible the safe passage of trains. The work—until then performed by men—was, as the article put it, “the most lonely, the most arduous, and, to a woman at least, the most dangerous job known.”

Often, you would have to stand a few feet from speeding locomotives in order to pass documents to the men inside with a specially designed, hoopshaped device, your face prickling with the rush of air, your nose filling with the smell of steam and oil, your long skirt lapping at the maelstrom of wheels. You worked the four-to-midnight shift at the box in nearby Western Springs, which the article described as “one of the most difficult posts” along the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad. Running the signal box all alone, you monitored traffic up and down the line and operated a series of mechanical semaphore signals that told trains whether to proceed, slow down, or stop.

I try to picture you in that box, rain rippling against the low-hanging roof, wind rattling the window, some lonely dog howling in the distance. You were thirty-one now, and you spent your nights in restless isolation, the stretches of dead silence shattered by the sudden pandemonium of passing trains, their roaring engines engulfing the tiny house in a cloud of white smoke. It must have been exhausting work, but if you or one of the other women “should become drowsy enough to drop her head down on the table in front of her a little too long some night . . . there might be a disaster,” explained the Tribune.

That same issue of the paper—May 15, 1910—contained an article about how suffragists were planning a car tour through the state to drum up support for women’s access to the ballot box. (“We want the men to be good to us just the same as ever and there isn’t one of us who will pretend that she isn’t afraid of a mouse,” explained one organizer, “but we want to vote anyway.”) I can’t say whether you embraced the idea of gender equality, of course, but I do know that, intentionally or not, you were helping to bring about a radical change in the role of women—and that you must have had plenty of courage and pluck. Perhaps you agreed with the unnamed “signal girl” who told the Tribune: “The love of the trains gets into your blood. We feel like railroad men in that way. You know they will get disgusted and go away and think they are going to give up the job, but they always come back to it.”

True, some of those railroad men “resent[ed] the invasion of women” into their ranks, as the paper explained. But at least one of them seems to have delighted in your company. Eight years your junior, he was a skinny, twenty-three-year-old farm boy from New Vienna, Iowa, with an outgoing spirit, gentle blue eyes and a slightly misshapen nose, the result of being smacked in the face with a clarinet during some childhood horseplay. He lived just a block away from you in Downers Grove, and, like you, he was a telegrapher for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, a job that had already left him with a mangled right wrist, grazed by a speeding train as he stepped carelessly out of the signal box one day. By the time the Tribune article came out, he was in the habit of wrapping that maimed forearm around your waist and pulling you close. The following month, he would become your husband, and a few years later your widower, and long after that his picture would hang above the stairs of my home and my mother would point to it and say That’s your grandfather. His name was Henry M. Kaut.

A railroad man always carried a pocket watch. Henry Kaut’s timepiece—an elegant model with a double-sunk porcelain dial, stylish numbering, glimmering blue hands and a gold-filled case—now hangs in a little glass-dome display case at my mother’s house. It was manufactured by the Hampden Watch Company of Canton, Ohio, in 1913. Perhaps your husband bought it to mark the birth that year of Rankin Thomas “Tommy” Kaut, who, like his mother, would be doomed to die within months of his fortieth birthday.

The experience of time changed radically during your short life—a revolution driven by the telegraph and railroads. For much of the ninteenth century, Americans had kept time by the sun. Most towns and cities relied on a central clock tower, where a jeweler or amateur astronomer would fix the hour when the sun appeared directly overhead. This meant that when it was noon in Chicago, it was 12:19 in Columbus, 12:13 in Atlanta, 11:50 in St. Louis and 11:27 in Houston. By one estimate, the U.S. used some 8,000 of these localtime conventions in the 1870s. Before the arrival of the telegraph and railroads, this “mess of hours,” as one expert described it, hadn’t mattered much. But now, with information and people shooting across vast distances at previously unimagined speeds, the lack of a coordinated time system was proving to be a logistical nightmare. In Pittsburgh, for instance, railway passengers, engineers and employees had to contend with six different time standards for the arrival and departure of trains.

In the face of such chaos, the railroads took it upon themselves to rationalize time. Meeting in Chicago in 1883, representatives of the train companies agreed to divide the U.S. and Canada into four different time zones. This decision, wrote one expert, marked the moment “when the modern meaning of ‘now’ was legislated into existence.” Another author called it “the most momentous development in the history of uniform, public time since the mechanical clock in the fourteenth century.”

Although these zones did not yet have the force of law—Congress, in fact, would not enact a standardized-time bill until 1918—major U.S. cities quickly decided to get in synch with the railroads. From now on, everybody would be on the same clock. Time would be legalized, synchronized, metered and global. In 1913, the year my grandfather’s pocket watch was manufactured, the Eiffel Tower used a wireless telegraph to send out the first time signal to be transmitted around the world—a universal clock tower to replace the old local ones. That same year, the automobile magnate Henry Ford initiated his system of mass production, slashing the time it took to make a car from fourteen hours to just two.

The world was getting smaller, moving faster. Did you feel it picking up speed? The telephone was already replacing the telegraph, even at your own job on the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad. The experimental technology of radio was becoming a reality, thanks to the first wireless audio transmissions of music and the human voice. The airplane, invented only a few years earlier, had already “come to stay,” in the words of a 1909 Chicago Tribune article, which predicted this new form of transportation would unleash “the most far-reaching revolution that has ever transformed the world.”

Many more revolutions would follow, technological breakthroughs you could not have begun to imagine during your life, each one adding to the collective sense that there’s no escape from the clock, that fast and faster and fastest are never fast enough. The TV, the PC, the Internet, cell phones, smart phones, social networks, tablets, tweets—life just keeps rushing ahead like a train shooting past some boarded-up old signal box as it races onto the plains, on and on until everything outside the windows becomes a blur, on and on until a passenger can begin to feel dizzy, disoriented, suddenly unsure of where he’s headed or how the trip began.

This much I know: you had a big heart. In 1911, just a year after you married Henry Kaut, one of your three sisters came to you “in ill health, out of funds and in need of assistance,” according to that biography in the court documents She had a lung condition—tuberculosis, by all indications. You and your husband not only took her in and “accepted her as one of the family,” but in 1914 you picked up and moved with her to Colorado on the advice of doctors, who in those days believed that mountain air helped treat lung diseases. Now the mother of an infant, you no longer worked as a telegrapher, but your husband still was with the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, which agreed to transfer him to Denver.

Despite the change of climate, your sister’s health continued to decline, and doctors advised that desert air might offer the cure that mountain air had failed to provide. So the whole family moved again—this time to Phoenix, where your husband found a position with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. But not even this new setting could help poor Minerva Thorpe, who passed away on October 6, 1918, at the age of thirty-eight. Henry Kaut boarded a train and accompanied your sister’s body back to Illinois for the funeral, but you did not go with him. By that time, you, too, had fallen dangerously ill.

Dr. W.R. Harvey, 1849-1918; Jennie Harvey, 1855-1953; Wilber R. Harvey, 1886-1917; Benjamin Harvey, 1846-1933; Mary Jane Harvey, 1853-1934; Dorothy G. Harvey, 1906-1971; John E. Harvey, 1904-1969; Glen B. Harvey, 1907-1937; John Pierce Harvey, 1858-1914; Elizabeth, his wife, 1868-1938. As Carl Klendworth leads me to your grave, I see my own surname over and over on the tombstones. There’s even the mysterious Mary J. Harvey, whose tombstone has no year of death (1892-19__) and whose grave apparently has no corpse. (“She’s dead, all right, but she was never buried,” Klendworth explains. “I don’t know why.”) Later I will learn that Mary J. and the other dead Harveys of Dana are not my direct relations. Still, the coincidence feels disconcerting. Or maybe it’s not a coincidence at all. From that first day in the National Archives, this journey into your past has had a vague air of inevitability, as if I’m being swept along by some force beyond my control. For an agnostic like me, it’s both unsettling and thrilling to feel myself under the spell of fate, everything around me pulsing with omens. My father died at sixty-one; if I follow in his path, I only have a decade left. And just in case I need another reminder that the end can swoop in at any time, here at my feet is the grave of little Newton S. Harvey, 1876-1877.

One-fifth of the world’s population became sick during the great influenza epidemic of 1918, with an even higher percentage in the United States. The plague came in two waves. In the spring, a mild strain swept across much of the globe, causing fever, aches and pains, but relatively few deaths. The epidemic appeared to die out during the summer, only to return in autumn with a vengeance, the virus mutating into a killer. Many victims experienced high fever, chills, coughing fits, earaches, headaches and agonizing pain in the joints. In some cases, they vomited blood; in others, it would suddenly spurt from their noses, ears, even eye sockets. Pockets of air would often accumulate beneath their skin, sometimes spreading over the whole body, as oxygen leaked from ruptured lungs. And as those lungs filled with a bloody froth, many patients turned blue as they drowned from inside—a horrifying final image for loved ones.

This second wave began on the east coast in early September of 1918 and quickly shot west. It reached Arizona the same way you did: “along the silvered rails of the Santa Fe Railroad,” as one writer put it. With their cramped and closed-off quarters, trains had become lethal vectors of disease. That same autumn, for example, the future novelist and literary critic Mary McCarthy, then six years old, boarded the Northern Pacific’s North Coast Limited with her family, bound from Seattle to Minneapolis. Eight days later, both of her parents were dead.

Your sickness coincided with first reports of outbreaks in Arizona. Often the virus would kill its victims within days, or even hours. But for other patients, the infection would begin as an ordinary flu until the fourth or fifth day, when a sudden onset of pneumonia would leave them in a battle for survival. You hung on for weeks, long enough to hear church bells ring in the end of World War I, the Armistice having been signed at eleven o’clock on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.

Perhaps you were also aware of the panic that the flu unleashed in Phoenix, where a vigilante Citizens’ Committee deputized a special police force to arrest those who spit or coughed without covering their mouths, as well as those who ventured out in public without a gauze mask. Soon Phoenix was “a city of masked faces, a city as grotesque as a masked carnival,” observed the Arizona Republican. The situation only got more surreal as the weeks wore on. Spurred on by rumors that dogs spread the flu, police began killing all strays they found on the street. Soon normal citizens were taking guns to their own beloved pets. “At this death rate . . . Phoenix will soon be dogless,” observed the Arizona Gazette.

The dogs, of course, had nothing to do with the disease—and unbeknownst to scientific experts at the time, the influenza virus was small enough to pass through a gauze mask. So the epidemic raged on, killing with its own confounding logic. “Ten people sit in the same draught, are exposed to the same microbes,” one local physician observed. “Some will suffer and perhaps die, while others go scot free.”

“The confounded flu is on the loose again,” Albert Einstein reported in October of 1918. “It’s uncannily rampant here.” As you lay dying in Phoenix, the famous physicist was in Berlin, where thousands were succumbing to the disease.

Unlike most pandemics, which inflict their worst ravages on the very young and very old, the Great Influenza of 1918 attacked the healthiest part of the population. Young adults, ages 20-40, were the most likely to die. Born the same year as you—1879—Einstein, too, was in real danger of being struck down. But while people close to him contracted the virus, he was, as he put it, “spared.”

The great scientist would not have attributed his winning ticket in this cataclysmic lottery to God’s will. He did not, he once wrote, believe in a deity who “concerns himself with the fate and doings of mankind.” Nonetheless, he refused to describe himself as an atheist, insisting on the “lawful harmony” of the universe. “I see a clock,” he wrote, “but I cannot envision the clockmaker.”

He had devoted his life to discovering the inner workings of that clock. In 1905, he published a paper that would change our understanding of the nature of the universe. Prior to the theory of special relativity, scientists and average people alike viewed time as absolute, flowing on and on in an orderly and measurable way. But Einstein argued that neither time nor space is absolute; how we perceive them depends on where we are and how we move. To illustrate this idea, the physicist Kip S. Thorne, author of Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy, employs the analogy of a speeding train:

One can measure the Earth’s velocity only relative to other physical objects such as the Sun or the Moon, just as one can measure a train’s velocity only relative to physical objects such as the ground and the air. For neither Earth nor train nor anything else is there any standard of absolute motion; motion is purely “relative.” . . .
By rejecting absolute time, Einstein rejected the notion that everyone, regardless of his or her motion, must experience the flow of time in the same manner. Time is relative, Einstein asserted. Each person traveling in his or her own way must experience a different time flow than others, traveling differently.

Sometimes this idea staggers my brain, but today even the most counterintuitive conclusion of Einstein’s theory—that time runs more slowly for fastmoving objects than for stationary observers—seems simple and self-evident. I’ve only been on the road for a few hours, and already I feel less frantic, lighter, as if I’ve managed to outdistance some of my worries. As I was speeding through a huge wind farm a while back, the giant blades spinning steadily, the road stretching on and on, I could feel my body relaxing, my brain making space for contemplation.

I once mentioned you to a Christian friend, a poet who writes and speaks about God so beautifully I often feel envious of his faith. When I asked him what he made of my fascination with your story, he just laughed. “Do you hear the words you’re using?” he said. “You keep telling me this person died so that you could live. That’s the language of the cross. That’s God’s way of bringing you to Christ.”

If so, I’m still waiting to hear the call. Despite the unsettling sense of fate that’s haunted me since I stumbled upon you, my views on religion remain close to those of Einstein: “I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals, or would directly sit in judgment on creatures of his own creation.” And yet for all that, this trip reminds me that the idea of rebirth has a powerful hold on my imagination. It’s been a long time since I got out on my own like this, and I had almost forgotten the freedom that comes with wandering country lanes, every fork in the road offering a new adventure, a different chance at the future. It makes me nostalgic for bygone days—before I had a mortgage to cover and kids to take to school and office hours to keep for my students and prescriptions to pick up for my mother—when I could just climb in the car and speed off, intoxicated with the idea, however illusory and fleeting, that if I drove far and fast enough anything was possible.

“Mr. Kaut arrived with the body from Arizona on Sunday night,” reported the local paper on January 10, 1919. No doubt he brought you home on the Santa Fe Railroad, just as he had done with your sister’s corpse a few months earlier The funeral took place at the house of your sister, Addie—the future grandmother of my guide. A quartet performed music, and the Reverend W.H. Love delivered a eulogy. Then the mourners made their way to the cemetery where I now stand, pallbearers lowering you into the ground.

The widowed man did not stay in town for long. Explaining that he had to return to his job as a telegrapher and chief clerk in the Phoenix office of the Santa Fe, he headed back across the country, likely aboard another train—leaving your motherless five-year-old in the care of the boy’s Aunt Addie.

I sometimes picture him on that train, staring out the window at night, the car rocking grimly, the lights from some town splashing across his face before shadows overtake him again. And the train rushes on, deeper and deeper into the great dark void of the American West and his own grief.

“Now there would be time for everything.” When I try to imagine what he must have been thinking then, I remember that haunting final line of Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Katherine Anne Porter’s novella about the 1918 epidemic, in which the protagonist recovers from a serious case of the flu only to learn that it has taken the life of her lover. All her plans, her dreams, her obligations have suddenly vanished. What awaits her is only an awful emptiness, “the dead cold light of tomorrow.”

Perhaps my grandfather believed that westbound train could outrace his anguish. Perhaps he planned to start over, leave every reminder of you behind, even his own son. But it didn’t work. In Phoenix, as his biography would later note, he was haunted by “unpleasant memories.” So after eight months he came back to Illinois, reclaimed his boy, and set about the business of living life. A couple of years later, he returned to Downers Grove, where he fell in love again, married and had another child (an accident, it appears: the girl was born six months after the wedding). In this new version of his future, the one that did not include you, he experienced many heartbreaks and hardships—not least, fourteen months in federal prison, after which he struggled to find work during the worst days of the Great Depression. But he was welcomed home by the members of his community, hundreds of whom—including the mayor, four members of the city council and six directors of the bank from which he was convicted of embezzling—had petitioned the judge not to send him to jail. His new wife, Lucille, never wavered in her love or support for him, and the years that followed were filled with countless quiet moments of happiness—long drives in the country with his family in a used Model A Ford; Sunday afternoons with his daughter at Comiskey Park, watching the great Ted Lyons pitch for the White Sox; lazy summer evenings on the front porch with the woman he loved and a
pipe full of tobacco, the song of cicadas and the rumble of passing trains. I’m told that when he died in 1947 he counted himself a very lucky man.

His daughter would mourn his passing and then mourn again when her half-brother Tommy died of heart failure in 1953. But she, too, would get on with life, falling in love with a baby-faced World War II vet named Robert Harvey, whom she married in 1955. Like her father, she would move west, where she would have one son, then come home to Downers Grove, where she would have another (an accident, as well: failed birth control). And one day, half a lifetime later, that second child, now with children of his own, would happen upon your name in a yellowed and forgotten document and suddenly wonder about his place in the world. And then he would visit your grave in search of answers.

But of course there are no answers, no epiphanies, no ghosts—just a silent hunk of red granite.

It’s late afternoon when I take my leave from Carl Klendworth.

We usually think of time “as if it were a straight railway line on which one could only go one way or the other,” wrote the physicist Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time. “But what if the railway line had loops and branches so that a train could keep going forward but come back to a station it had already passed? In other words, might it be possible for someone to travel into the future or the past?”

If I could board such a train, I would purchase a ticket to Dana, Illinois, circa 1905.

I’ve never even seen a picture of you, but in a town of no more than three-hundred people, you wouldn’t be hard to find. Perhaps someone would point you out to me as you sat on a bench in front of the general store, a young woman in a shirtwaist blouse and trumpet skirt taking a rest from the August heat. You would still be living at home, caring for your dying mother. Your dreams would still be in front of you.

Maybe it would be enough simply to lay eyes on you. Maybe my urge to seek you out across the ages finally would be satisfied. Maybe I’d turn around and catch the next train back to the twenty-first century.

Or maybe I’d stroll over to the general store.

In physics, there’s something called the grandfather paradox. Einstein’s theory of general relativity—the second of his landmark papers that redefined the universe, published in 1916—makes backward time travel at least hypothetically possible. But what would end up happening if we could actually journey into the past? As the grandfather paradox illustrates, that’s a confounding question.

Suppose a man builds a time machine. He travels back to the day before his biological grandfather and biological grandmother slept with each other for the first time. The two men get into a fight, and the grandson kills the grandfather. That means one of the time traveler’s parents would never have been conceived, which means the traveler and his time machine would not exist.

Now consider a different version of the grandfather paradox. Suppose a man travels back to a time before his grandfather’s first wife fell ill, before they met, before she even left her hometown. He finds her sitting on a bench in front of the general store. Suppose she is bored enough on a slow, sweltering afternoon to share some small talk with a stranger wearing a straw boater hat.

Suppose they start to gossip about the headlines—President Theodore Roosevelt’s latest efforts to end the Russo-Japanese war, or the crackdown on gambling houses in Chicago, or the deadly outbreak of yellow fever in Louisiana, or the scandalous cream-colored bathing costumes that women have been spotted wearing in Atlantic City, outfits the Chicago Tribune describes as “practically. . . transparent.” Suppose the conversation slowly turns to personal matters, as sometimes happens between strangers with time on their hands. Suppose the man jokes about his eight-year-old boy’s obsession with baseball, a passion passed down, generation to generation, from the maternal grandfather whom the man never met. Suppose he brags about his twelve-year-old daughter, who gets her middle name, along with her sharp mind, gentle spirit and big ears, from her great grandmother Lucille.

Suppose the man finds that he can’t stop talking, that he needs the woman to know all about himself. Suppose he’s not sure why. Does he want her approval? Her advice? Her forgiveness? Suppose he tells her the story of how he met his wife, a long and convoluted tale that all his friends have heard a hundred times, about how he loved Rengin Altay from the minute he saw her at a party in Bloomington, Illinois, how her black eyes haunted him for years though he rarely crossed her path, and how a series of unlikely coincidences and chance meetings at a laundry in Chicago finally brought them together.

Suppose the woman says: Sounds like destiny.

And the man says: I wish I could believe in destiny. The thing is that if you change a couple of random and tiny events, my life would be completely different.

And the woman says: But if you’re happy, why does it matter?

And the man says: Because, among other things, it bothers me to think that my life is something that has happened to me rather than a narrative of my own making.

And the woman says: Do you have a penny?

Suppose the man reaches into his pocket and to his surprise pulls out a freshly minted 1905 Indian-head cent-piece. Suppose he’s admiring the face of Lady Liberty in her feathered headdress when the woman rises quietly and takes the coin from him, her fingertips sliding softly across his open palm.

Suppose the woman says: I am not very lucky in life so far. I have neither a husband to love nor children, and I am stuck in this suffocating town. Since you seem to be so bothered by your own good fortune, let’s make a wager. Heads, you’ll keep your luck; tails, you’ll get mine and I’ll take yours.

Suppose that before the man can say a word, she flips the coin high into the air. Suppose that it rises slowly, then seems to hang there, the spinning copper glimmering in the fierce sunlight.

“God does not play dice,” Albert Einstein famously declared. In his view, everything in the cosmos came down to cause and effect. There was no room for chance. That’s why Einstein had trouble accepting the discoveries of quantum mechanics—a field of science he helped to create, which describes the behavior of atoms and their constituents. He could never quite trust evidence that the world of subatomic particles is chaotic and unpredictable, a place where events in the present and future are not entirely determined by the past.

But it turns out that, for once, Einstein was apparently wrong. In this case, God does play dice. And it’s precisely the capriciousness of those dice that may offer an answer to the grandfather paradox. Quantum mechanics opens the possibility that although human beings are only ever aware of one world, the particles that make up that world may exist in multiple universes at once. According to one interpretation of quantum theory, when two subatomic particles collide, slamming off each other like a pair of rolled dice, one of those particles does not simply go left or right. It goes left into one universe or right into a completely different universe. This means “it may be possible to go back in time and change the past,” writes the noted physicist Michio Kaku.

However, at that point another quantum universe opens up, and time “forks” into two rivers, each one leading to a new universe. For example, if we go back in time to save Abraham Lincoln at the Ford Theater, then in one universe Lincoln is saved and the direction of time is altered. However, the universe you came from is unchanged. Your past cannot be altered. You have merely saved the life of a quantum double of Lincoln in a quantum parallel universe.

So suppose we are standing there, you and I, shielding our eyes as an Indianhead penny slices through the thick August air. We keep watching, but it does not come down.

And I say, That’s inexplicable.

And you say, So many things are like that.

And for a long while we stare silently at that tiny copper star.

And then you sigh and shrug and say, It has been pleasant to meet you, but I’m afraid I can’t remain here all day. My mother is ill and I need to get back to her.

And we linger for a few moments more, talking about the limbo of watching a loved one leave the world, the way time eddies around the sick person, death moving slow while life rushes on.

And you say, Now I really must go. Perhaps we can settle our bet on some other afternoon.

And far above us, the penny spins, heads, tails, heads, tails, glimmering with possibility.

That night, on the drive back to Chicago, I find myself stuck at a rural railway crossing. A freight train rolls slowly past, lumbering on and on until the final car rolls into view. Then, still stretched through the crossing, it stops and sits, as if catching its breath. After a long wait, the train begins to crawl the opposite way, boxcar after boxcar after boxcar rattling through until the locomotive reappears. Then it stops again. From the dark, railroad workers emerge with flashlights and examine something along the tracks—a malfunctioning switch, perhaps—their shouts drowned out by the incessant ring of the crossing bell.

Ten minutes pass, then fifteen, then twenty. On the lonely two-lane road, a long line of cars forms. Some peel away and speed off in the direction from which they came, but I’m in no rush. After leaving your grave, I hung around Dana, stopping at the Gold Dust Diner to sample the catfish plate before returning to the cemetery so that I could kiss the tips of my fingers and press them to the polished granite that bears your name. By the time I left town, the sun had started to set, hanging over the ruins of Dana Township High School like a giant red wrecking ball.

Now a clear night sky looms overhead, planets spinning, stars forming and imploding, the universe feverishly expanding. And beyond all that, perhaps, other universes come and go as well; everything that exists and can possibly exist swirling around out there in the dark. But here, in the middle of nowhere, nothing moves. The crossing bell drones on and the White Sox game plays softly, hypnotically on the radio. Then, as if awakening from a trance, the locomotive groans into motion. The switch, it seems, has been fixed; the journey can proceed. I watch that train rumble off into the night—then the gate lifts, the road opens, and once again I’m carried away by time, racing toward home.

Miles Harvey is the author of The King of Confidence: A Tale of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, True Believers, False Prophets, and the Murder of an American Monarch, selected as a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice pick in 2020. His previous work includes the national bestseller The Island of Lost Maps. A former Knight-Wallace journalism fellow, Harvey teaches creative writing at DePaul University, where he is a founding editor of Big Shoulders Books.

Originally published in NOR 15

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