STILL LIFE, WITH APPEALS
by Mike Ostrov
Eighteen months after the scientists perfected backward time travel, Congress perfected the backward time travel regulations. One has to fill out an appeal and get approved by the Agency. Typically, the Time Travel Agency (TTA) only approves appeals to go back a day or two at a time, to, for instance, fix an oil spill or redact a politically incorrect statement. They never go back far enough to fix underlying problems or systematic injustices, the widely shared critique goes. The appeals are pretty expensive; corporations and other government agencies use them mostly, but legally they're available to everyone.
Issue #61 soundtrack: Bora York "Open Tales"
Part of the TTA rubric for approving appeals (available in full online):
i. Does the applicant display sufficient signs of remorse (panic, self-sacrifice, torn clothing, shaky or smeared handwriting, incredulity, etc.)? Rate on range of 0-5 pts. with 5 being most genuine and 0 being just a sorry, sorry person.
ii. Does the application adhere to the Gregorian calendar? (Yes, 5 pts. No, 0 pts.)
iii. Should the application be approved, the applicant intends to, this time, treat his/her fellow human beings with:
a. dismissiveness (3 pts.)
b. sexual deviance (2 pts.)
c. elegance (3 pts.)
d. other (-1 pt.)
It would take about half of my month's pay to submit an appeal—and if the appeal were to be denied, I'd only get refunded eighty percent, with the rest withheld for processing fees. Then I might fill out an appeal asking to go back and not fill out the first appeal, but I doubt that would be approved either and I'd be out another five hundred or so bucks on top of it all.
I have no public disasters to undo. But how I damage myself. Private violence, repeat offenses. I would rather stop altogether than have to go back and undo, but this many years into it, I've begun to think it doesn't work that way. What started out as avoidable inconveniences of the universe—spilling milk on my computer and having to waste minutes cleaning it up, then knocking over the trash can while throwing away the paper towels—have gone on long enough for me to recognize that I am destructively careless.
I don't mind when my carelessness gets me, but I have let it breach others, and for those times I am sorry. I would like the chance to contain the effects of those times. I would go back to the other night and not get as drunk at the party. Every time I did something and she looked at me different afterwards, I would go back. Her or anybody. It would be like I never changed, or people wouldn't notice I had. I wouldn't have knocked the books out of my classmate's arms while we, as boys, walked through the halls. I wouldn't have crashed my sister's car, which I often borrowed, because I would go back and choose not to drive under the influence of fresh unrequited love. I would've saved for my own car. I still am not in the habit of saving. But that's just simple regret, laced with some arrested development. I could understand an appeal denied on those grounds.
Car and health insurance companies charge higher rates for customers with a history of filing time travel appeals, whether they're granted or not, because such customers "demonstrate a lack of critical thinking skills, as well as a propensity toward, and possible addiction to, self-destructive behavior." For practical reasons, this policy is to prevent offenders from going back in time to undo speeding tickets and drinking binges.
Many people forgo retirement investments, instead diverting funds for their appeals.
I wouldn't have called my mother a bitch, ever.
You can pick up appeals at any government office. Most times I go to the post office, I come back with a few. You know, for kicks. I lay them all out in front of me on my kitchen table. I work backwards and try to set aside days I wouldn't change anything about. The farthest back I ever tracked back before I met regret was two days before yesterday.
Yesterday, I worked an all-day Sunday shift detailing cars, drank beer afterwards, and didn't have time to think about anything. The day before yesterday, she and I kayaked at a lake while a high-school funk band played a birthday party on the banks. Then we bought new used books and went to a different lake to read them. I said to her, "I love you. I'm fucking lucky." She said, "I used to consider changing my name to Iloveyou, just so I'd have an excuse to say it. To restaurant hostesses, to all manner of receptionist and secretary." We sat on the dock and our butts got dirty, hers more than mine because her shorts were shorter. The day before that, Friday, I under-cooked chicken drumsticks for us and she, who is immunocompromised, ate a few of the more-cooked ones before realizing they weren't enough-cooked. She was to start a new job today, Monday, and salmonella supposedly takes three-to-five days to appear, so for her whole last weekend off and first week of work she bears the stress of whether or not her immune system will dodge the food poisoning I may or may not have served.
We researched our odds of survival on the internet. We panicked and fell exhausted. I learned campylobacter is more common than salmonella.
One of the time travel regulations inserts a clause into military contracts forbidding combat veterans from submitting appeals. Most private companies followed suit and workplace injuries are not eligible for re-do.
I have never met anybody who had an appeal accepted, not that they'd be allowed to talk about it if they did—a critical regulation. Of course there are those who think this is all a scam at every stage of the game. Not just the processing fees, but the whole thing. We go back and make the same mistakes over again. Or worse, we don't go back at all, keep sending our money in, and fail to recognize the pattern. This could be why women are not allowed to file appeals while pregnant—high-stakes evidence one way or another.
There are several short-answer questions on the time travel appeal form. One is:
In your own words, respond to the statement, "We're all in this together."
It's fall. She left me soon after the drumsticks. She was in the hospital for two days. I proved too risky. I wonder how much of a danger I will be to myself without her to absorb half of my fallout. My mother says I’m fine.
Heat and AC bills are low. I can afford to risk a processing fee on a big appeal. No more containment, correction. Trying to solve at least one underlying problem, I bring this one into the TTA office on my day off: One morning in the Fall of 1620, The Wave That Wrecked The Mayflower overslept. I wish to alarm it.
They process appeals the day of if you bring it in yourself, but there's always a wait. I take a number and sit down in the waiting area, a square room with pew-like benches. It's almost full. The women seem to be holding it together better than the men. Some women have manila folders. One guy, I can only see his back, wears a white t-shirt with the handwritten words, "But I'm so progressive." A kid about eleven years old sits alone and wrings a baseball cap in his hands like he might have seen a sad-sack Depression-era character do in a cartoon.
Hanging on the wall is a promotional poster for the TTA featuring a popular sitcom father asking us, "Would you wager what you're afraid of at twenty-five against what you were sure of at eighteen?"
The woman sitting next to me, a short young South American woman, applies calamine lotion on her calves and ankles with a cotton swab.
"Fleas," she says. "Not on me now. A friend lets me do laundry at her place. She'll probably get fleas."
"I hate laundry," I say, knowing I cannot empathize with fleas. I can relate to laundry. It's the weekly starting over tax.
"Have you ever had fleas, sir?"
"No, ma'am, but laundry's quite the defeater, it's a weekly start—"
"Have you ever been infested?"
"No, I." I had nothing.
"It's so bad that I'm excited to be here. In the stupid wooden waiting room."
"That sounds bad."
"My car, driveway, front porch, living room, hallway, bathroom rugs, bed sheets. The five seconds it takes you to unlock your front door when you come home, they swarm. The five minutes you stand at your sink doing dishes. When you come out of the shower clean, you are filthy by the time you get to your bedroom. Any time you stand still. God forbid you try to sit on the toilet."
"Forget it! I'd never appreciated the luxury of standing still until the fleas. I'd never known the burden of laundry. I can't leave my house with socks on because the fleas get inside the fibers and bite my feet all day. My laundry hamper is hanging from the fire sprinkler on the roof because it can't touch the floor. I need this appeal to work because it's a better investment than laundry forever, let alone the actual infestation."
The agents call out batches of numbers at a time. If you're not paying attention and you miss your number, you have to take another number and start over.
"What I said about standing still," the woman continues, "that is what I miss most. That is when you assure yourself you are a person, when you can be still, shut off. I can't. There's no boundary between myself and the fleas. They can get to me any time."
"You've become the pattern."
She hands me her appeal. "Tell me if you think my appeal has a chance. I can't afford to keep doing this."
The form says her name is Claudia. It reads: I would move in with my girlfriend when she asked me to in August and I will vacuum all the time.
It was simple and doable. Better than mine.
"I've never had one granted. I've read the instructions, but I don't really know what they're looking for," I say. I show her my appeal in return.
"Do you propose to prevent America?"
"I just want to stop fucking up."
"Poor you. You must be lousy with guilt and doubt. You'll need to go back farther than that." I take my appeal back.
I need to bolster my case. The directions for filing an appeal read like a fourth grade writing evaluation prompt:
Be as concise as possible. Try and consider every possibility before filing your appeal. Read some Einstein or Susskind, perhaps. Be creative!
On the back of the form, I draw:
I used the cap of Claudia's calamine lotion bottle to draw the circles.
An agent calls the next person in line to his desk. The next person gets up from the bench, it's the guy with the "But I'm so progressive" shirt. Now I can read the front: "I HATE CHANGE." He takes the shirt off over his head, balls it up, and throws it at the agent, screaming, "Move on without me. Faster!" His protest is more concise and inexpensive than mine, which I admire.
The agent throws the shirt in the recycling bin behind the desk and calls the next person, Claudia. The shirtless man implores a janitor to retrieve his shirt.
I leave to go find her. I could use the application fee to pay her hospital bills, I could buy a meat thermometer.
In 2010, Mike Ostrov married Townes Van Zandt's horse, Amigo, in a private ceremony in Gainesville FL. He currently lives in Somerville MA, working as a nocturnal fire escape integrity tester. His fiction has appeared in and disappeared from Girls With Insurance and Dispatch LitaReview; he reviews music for Ninebullets.net.
Joan Hiller seeks to articulate personal interior landscapes by engaging with symbolic color, suggesting tonal references to urban and natural habitats, and practicing action-based addition and removal of materials from her abstraction work. Her work has been exhibited in Houston, Texas (Blaffer Gallery), Pomona, CA (Glass House), Koln, Germany (Kunst Gallery), Los Angeles, CA (Unitard Gallery, Four Eyes Art Collective), Seattle, WA (Tether Gallery, Velouria, Solo, Crocodile Cafe', The Anne Bonney, Ghost Gallery, Derek Erdman's International House of Paintings), Portland, OR (PDX Salon, Mississippi Studios, The Woods, Tiga, Disjecta, Albina Press), Anacortes, WA (Cascadia Contemporary), and New York City, NY (HiFi). Her album artwork appears on LPs by Benjamin Gibbard, Laura Gibson, Dave Depper, The White Papers and others. Select work available at Ghost Gallery (Seattle, WA), for rental or ownership through Artsicle, through Big Cartel, or through contacting the artist directly. For more, visit joanhiller.com.
Bora York is the Minneapolis-based dream-pop band of Chris Bartels, his wife Rebekah, and a few good friends. The band's debut album, Dreaming Free, is due out March 22 from Anthem Falls Music. For more, visit the band online at borayork.com.