Twenty Minutes

11 10 2008



The morning sunlight cracked into the dark bar, framing Josh Davidson.  He was a man in his early thirties with shoulder-length sandy blond hair, curly sideburns and a sparse and not so neatly trimmed goatee.  He took one quick glance around and headed to a booth in the far corner, with his eyes on the ground as he covered the distance.  He had a slight smile that was a mixture of nervousness and amusement as he grabbed a chair and slid it up to the table, where three men sat on the bench that surrounded it.  His eyes averted from the floor to the tabletop as he sat down and greeted them, “Good evening, gentlemen.”


The men mumbled a greeting in return.


“Hey, I noticed that you guys were talking about some pretty heady stuff, and I thought I might like to join in,” Josh said, as he produced an empty glass, which he placed on the table and requested, “Would you guys mind sparing me just a little to drink, if you could?”


The man sitting directly across from him was a middle-aged fellow with dark hair, bushy eyebrows and a handlebar mustache.  He lowered his eyebrows in thought and reached for his beer bottle, saying, “Sure, I don’t mind, but what do you mean you overheard what we were saying?  You just walked through the door”


Josh watched for a minute as Handlebars started going through the motions of delivering a sample of brew, but the man paused expectantly, as though holding the drink for ransom in lieu of an explanation.  “Well,” Josh started, “It’s hard to explain, and I might not have time to finish before the world ends in the next twenty minutes.”


“Hmm,” said Handlebars, “And you think we were talking about important stuff?”  He poured a small amount into the glass.


“…Before the world ends in the next twenty minutes?” scoffed the man to Josh’s left.  He was another middle-aged man, with male pattern baldness and a basketball for a belly.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”


Before Josh could answer, the guy to his right, a man with chiseled features and a pock-marked face declared, “Man, that doesn’t look like beer to me.”


They all looked at the glass that Handlebars had just filled, and the “beer” was just a clear liquid.  Josh took it and thanked him, “Water’s fine, thanks.  I don’t actually like beer, anyway.”  They stared at him as he took a drink, and Handlebars spied down the neck of his bottle, mumbling his confusion.  Josh put the glass down and continued, “Let me ask you guys something.  How long has the universe been around?”


“About sixteen billion years,” said baldy, without hesitation.


“Less,” Josh quickly replied.


Baldy looked at him sideways with an obvious touch of scorn, saying, “Oh, you’re one of those people who think the world was made in seven days, only a few thousand years ago.”


“Actually,” replied Josh, looking over the man’s shoulder, hoping to give the impression of eye contact, “The whole universe began just minutes ago, when I walked through that door.”  The group visibly relaxed, thinking that this must be some kind of joke, rather than a heated religious debate, but Josh continued, “Everything that you think happened before that point is merely implied.  It’s all just background, like this bar is to our conversation.  In one sense, this place was built by the Allenby Construction Firm thirty-three years ago, but on the other hand, did any of this, or any of you exist before the moment I walked through that door?”


“Well,” said Handlebars, “if that were true, then you’d better tell my wife, because then it would mean we were never married.”


“Actually,” said Josh, “You were married three times, and the woman you’re living with now isn’t your wife.”


At this, Handlebars was clearly shaken, and the tension at the booth rose a notch.  “Man, I don’t know you from Adam, but if you’ve been watching me and my family, then you’d better be ready for a fight, ‘cause I won’t put up with no peeping tom.”


Josh was so agitated about his response that he could barely continue.  “I haven’t been watching you.  It’s not like that.”  Pointing to a basket of bread at the table, he explained, “See that bread?  Do you think that’s the only thing keeping you alive?  It takes more than food to keep you alive.  You people are just fictional characters put into existence by the writing of an author.  You live by every word that the author writes.”


Baldy rubbed his mouth and mumbled sideways, “That’s a new one.”


“Your entire existence and the entire universe began the moment I walked through that door, and it will all end in a few minutes, the moment I walk out through that door,” Josh explained, “In that time, between the beginning and the end, you have only one thing needful to do, which is to solve the riddle that I put to you.”


“Which is?” Baldy replied.


“To discover who I am, and to accept it,” Josh replied.


They all paused in silence as a patron entered, letting in the bright noon sunlight.  The patron, clearly a man who had just come from some other bar, stumbled up to the bar and asked for a drink.


“I’m not going to play your game,” said Baldy, “Who are you, and why are you here?”


Josh looked at him in surprise, “You don’t want to try to figure it out?” he asked.


“Don’t jerk me around,” retorted Baldy.


“I am the author,” said Josh, straightly.


They all shifted in their seats, trying to get more relaxed.  “I’m not buying it,” said Baldy.


“How could you be the author if you’re here, with us?  An author can’t write himself into existence,” Handlebars reasoned.  His brow furrowed even deeper with the thought.


“Prove it,” said Baldy, sharply, “do something that only a creator of the universe could do.”


Josh sat back and took a measured breath.  He thought about it for a moment as he caressed the end of his nose and then said, “No, I don’t think I will.  If you want magic tricks, then you can go find a magician.  The magic that the author can do is the magic that he does every day, and you take it for granted.  Every breath you take is pure magic, made possible by the author, himself.”


“There you go, betraying yourself,” said the bald man, crossing his arms in triumph.  “You just referred to the author in the third person.  You said, ‘he does,’ and ‘himself,’ like it was someone else.  What is it, man?  First you try to tell us that we’re just fictional characters put into existence by an author, and then you say that you, yourself, are the author, and then you go back to saying he’s someone else.  Which is it, man?  You can’t have it both ways.”  He leaned over and slapped Josh somewhat unkindly on the face.  “Who did that?  Me or the author…excuse me…me or you?  Is the author slapping himself?”  He continued slapping Josh, harder each time.  “Tell, me, who hit you?” and then rose to his feet, laughing, “Man, you are funny!  If I didn’t think this was just some kind of joke, I’d have the funny farm called.”  Handlebars chuckled at that.


There was a ruckus in the bar, as the previously mentioned patron stormed out, having been refused a drink.  The bartender was hot on his heels shouting something about calling a taxi.  The bartender returned shortly, picking up a phone and calling someone.  The patron returned to the door, holding it ajar, letting in the dusky early-evening sunlight.


Josh turned back to the table and told the two who were still sitting, “There’s not much time left.  The world is about to end.”


“And then what?” asked Handlebars, as Baldy strutted off toward the bartender.


“Then it’s over,” said Josh.  “The story ends and you cease to exist.  Either you accept who I am and let me write you into the next story, or I let you come to your own end.  No one is forced to accept the riddle.  Everyone has a choice.”


“Except,” said Chisel-face, “That if we are all written into existence, then our choice rather goes beyond us, doesn’t it?  Sounds a bit fatalistic doesn’t it”


Josh shrugged his shoulders and said, “Yeah, you’re all predestined, but you still have a choice.  In the author’s world, you are chosen.  In this world, it’s a choice.  Call it a paradox, if you will.”


Chisel-face grunted and said, “Yet, you say that you are the author, which is hard to believe, because then you have to exist in both worlds.  You’re on the outside looking in, but you’re also on the inside, looking in.”


Josh spread his arms apart and said, “Look at me, man.  If you’ve met me, then you’ve met the author.  I don’t know how to interact with you any better than that.”


Chisel-face nodded slowly and replied, “I can believe that.  You walked in here without a glass, then produced one out of thin air.  You turned a bottle of beer into water.  You recited the marital history of someone you never knew.  I’m not even sure if that bread basket was on the table until the moment you pointed at it…I just can’t remember.  And then, then that light outside keeps changing, like the entire day is passing in just minutes!”


Josh stood and asked Chisel-face, “What’s you’re name?”


“Mark,” he replied.


Josh reached over and shook his hand, saying, “Pleased to meet you, Mark.  I’ll see you in the next story.”  He took one quick look at Handlebars, who was looking quite confused, then he headed for the door.  When he got there, he paused to see that Baldy was making small talk with the bartender, and then he headed out into the night.