Recurrence by Peter Sean Bradley



Peter Sean Bradley

In my twenty-seventh life, I noticed the fly.

I was proposing to Joanne, as always, in the French restaurant that I had thought was classy in my first life. I had pulled the ring out of my pocket and was giving it to her when a fly flew past my head, its loud buzzing Doppler-shifting up and then down.

You would have thought that after all this time I would have noticed it before.

I thought about the fly as my mouth formed the words, “I love you…will you marry me?”, and she said, as always, “yes,” and gave me an excited hug and kiss. As I was trying to spot the fly, the restaurant broke into applause.

Good times, I remembered.

We finished dinner, and I wondered why I hadn’t noticed it before. Was it a new element? Had there been a change? Or was it just an oversight on my part?

We left the restaurant, and I thought, Here comes the bad part.

We got in the car, backed up and headed out onto Palm Avenue. It was late, so the street was mostly empty. We made the right turn at Madison and headed to the freeway. I edged the car up to seventy miles per hour and moved into the far left lane.

That was the mistake I always make.

Thirty seconds later a car in the southbound lane, driven by twenty-two year old Robert Endo, a Business major with a credit card paid for by his father, heading back to the dorm after 6 hours of pounding shots at Manhattan’s, lost control of his car – maybe he fell asleep, or maybe he simply miscalculated a weave from one side to another – and departed his lane into oncoming traffic.

We were the oncoming traffic. The impact threw me clear of the car, killed Joanne instantly and left Endo with a broken arm.

Life can be ironic that way.

I woke up in the hospital, heavily sedated. I lay there motionless, but the pain of impact and road rash seeped its way through the sedatives. My body moved in response to the discomfort and pain in ways intended to alleviate my physical discomfort. It was not long before I fell back into unconsciousness.

The next morning, during visiting hours, my brother came in. He stuttered initially, but after several efforts, he said, “Joanne’s gone.” I broke down crying.

It was the usual drama as I sobbed in agony. After what seemed like forever, the nurse came in and increased my sedatives.

I was released from the hospital in time for Joanne’s funeral. There was not that much physically wrong with me, apart from muscular strain and abrasions. Time would heal all of the physical damage I had suffered.

The funeral had been arranged by Joanne’s parents, but I had a central role to play as the boyfriend and fiancé-for-a-moment. I responded with canned expressions to the trite and rote expressions of sympathy I was offered.

I listened to the preacher assuring us that Joanne had a friend in Jesus and was even now in heaven. As he spoke the words that I could have repeated verbatim, I hoped that was true for her. Now, I was pretty certain that it wasn’t true, at least for me, but I had no way of knowing about the existence of other people or their eternal destinies, if I had ever had any hope of understanding such mysterious things.

Was anyone really here?

How would I know?

As my eyes, wandered around the room, I pondered how things–the funeral, the sermon, the condolences–were so patterned, staged, automatic. If everyone else was operating on auto-pilot, would anyone be able to tell? Sometimes it seemed that at the moment when we ought to be the most alive, when we facing our biggest stress, we reverted back to protocols and wired operating systems. Maybe self-consciousness was a conceit, a deceit, not necessary at all.

After the funeral, I entered my moping phase. I didn’t go back to work. I didn’t take phone calls. I didn’t answer the door. I was in a dangerous place and I knew it.

The isolation gave me time to reflect, as I sat there in the darkened apartment where Joanne and I had lived together. I thought about the mind. Modern Philosophers of Mind, like Thomas Nagle, thought that the mind was prior to matter, that it was the fundamental substance of the universe. Perhaps the mind existed somehow outside the material world?

Maybe I should have studied physics instead of philosophy. Then I would have had more information about “string theory,” which might connect one part of space-time with another part. Perhaps, consciousness operated on the “string” of time that was a person’s existence, looping from beginning to end, and then back again.

What was time after all? From our perception, my perception in my first life and in my twenty-seventh, we live in a non-existent wave of the “present.” The future is always the future; the past is the past. Our conscious existence is always on that knife edge of the infinitesimal, where the future slides into the past. As Augustine had observed, no sooner do we think to ourselves that “this is the present” and it becomes the unalterable, unrecoverable past. The present is the edge of a soap bubble, expanding outward until it pops.

The past is unalterable. Yesterday is a place where free will has no meaning. Think about yesterday – when “yesterday” was “today,” you believed that you had free will. But if you were returned there, would you–could you–do anything different? For example, suppose you drank a cup of coffee when you got up. You could have made tea, but you didn’t. If you had a second run-through, what reason would you have not to drink coffee again? Whatever set of influences that determined your decision the first time are still there to determine your decision the second time around. Free will is meaningless to the past, and the present is simply the past–just a micro-second before it becomes the past. If so, that means that anyone entering the past would find their actions separated from their consciousness. Perhaps, the apparent coordination of intent and action simply broke apart under time-travel.

My God! What if Bishop Berkeley was right and solipsism was true?

Or maybe it was stuffy Gottfried and his monads? Maybe my ego monad had become ungeared from a universe of physical monads and I was getting a peek behind the scene of reality?

I felt my body push itself up and head into the bathroom.

Time to finish this round, I thought. But why did I have to choose such a messy way to die?

I was a suicide, which made me think about how the tradition of the medieval church had defined suicide as the “unforgivable sin.” What if there was a God and this long “Groundhog Day” – where I did not get the chance of improvement that the film director had given to dopey Bill Murray – was Hell? What if I was the only “soul” here and everyone else was an automaton?

As a movie, my life sucked.

No character development.Or maybe the good news was that this was Purgatory and I was working off my attachment to my sins. I swear that by now I would gladly detach myself from those sins, if I knew what they were.

My hand reached out and turned the tap to warm. I had, one time, read Roger Zelazny’s “Jack of Shadows,” which had explained the best way to commit suicide–warm water and long incisions down the arm.

I was certinaly not the Ubermensch dreamt by Friedrich Nietzsche. In one of his lesser known works, but better known ideas, perhaps because it is so creepy, crazy Freddy had written:

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ”This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence–even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”

Based on my experience, the answer is that it gets fairly tedious.

My hand reached to pick up the razor blade.

I sure hated the idea of going through puberty again.

Food for Thought

1. Recurrence offers a melange of philosophical ideas about time. The story specifically mentions Thomas Nagle and Friedrich Nietzsche. Can you identify the ideas of any other philosophers that made their way into the story? (As a hint, there is an homage to a Church Father and to the inventor of Calculus in the story.)

2. Do you have free will? In Groundhog Day – which is the single, all-time, best movie depiction of any passage written by Nietzsche – Phil and all the residents of Punxsutawney would have affirmed without question that they had free will. However, when Phil returns to the same day over and over again, he finds the good people of Punxsutawney going through the same motions and making the same decisions as if they were automatons following predetermined programming. Do they have free will? Did Phil have free will on that first day in Punxsutawney? Did he acquire free will on the “second” Groundhog Day?

3. The main character notices something new in his scripted life – a fly buzzing around the restaurant. What is the significance of the fly? Is it actually a new element or variation in his life?

About the Author

Peter Sean Bradley is a California trial attorney specializing in employment, civil rights and business litigation in California’s Great Central Valley, the future heartland of the Great State of East California (aka “West Oklahoma”), once the decadent coastal elites secede from the United States and complete their imminent death spiral without taking hardworking rural California with them. He is a lifelong reader of science fiction and occasionally reviews books for the Sci Phi Journal. He is currently rated at 1,094 as a review at Amazon; he was in the top 1,000 until he decided to post a less than laudatory review, but truthful, review of Timothy Snyder’s “On Tyranny,” and he has been on the receiving end of SJW tolerance and love of diversity ever since. Peter has also been reading St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica question by question every week since 2000. After 17 years, his group is at question 29 of the third volume (Part II-II), i.e., not yet halfway through the five-volume tome.


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