Published: December 30th, 2022
By: Shelly Reuben

TILTING AT WINDMILLS: The Time Engineer Author Shelly Reuben

This is a tale about a man who did things to time that were more or less impossible, but nonetheless happened. This extraordinary man of whom I speak had an ordinary name: Morris Thrift. It was the kind of name you might see at the bottom of a car rental agreement or a lease. Not one that would be spelled out in neon lights on a theater marquee.

He also had a trade with quite an ordinary description. His job title was Time Engineer.

Even though this is a contemporary story, Morris Thrift himself originated long, long ago. Millenniums before the invention of hand tools, cell phones, and suspension bridges.

I don’t know many specifics of how his work affected the greater part of history, but on one soft summer day when we were strolling along the banks of the Susquehanna River, I told him about the first and only time I had fallen in love, and he followed up with two peculiar stories. One was about a sword fight between a cruel interloper and a benevolent magistrate, the outcome of which would determine who ruled an ancient kingdom for the next forty years. The other was about ... well, you already know that one, even if you were never given the real reason why the tortoise won and the hare lost the race.

Morris told me that he usually didn’t interfere with time. At most, once or twice a generation, and when he did, it was always on a grand scale, involving governments, border disputes, or philosophers. Occasionally, however, he plied his trade for reasons he would neither explain nor justify, but that I knew were as simple as his affection for someone like me, for whom there were not enough hours in the day.

My name is Carol Celt. I am a competent, generally happy, but globally unimportant person. I will not cure cancer, reverse the tides, or invent a better mouse trap. If I died tomorrow, it would only grieve those I love.

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I manage a home goods store on the main street of a small city, which is where I met Morris Thrift when he came in to buy an hour glass. I love my boss, Mr. Tinbergen, who makes me feel valued and trusted, and I know that when he retires, he would like me to buy the store from him. Which, of course, is my dream, too.

My problem was twofold. One, I had to prove that I could take care of the business without his help. And two, I had a deadline by which to do this, because he and his wife were leaving for an eight-week European tour the following day. Mr. T was confident that I could handle any and all challenges in his absence, and I assured him that this was true. But I think I may have lied. Because...

I have this perfectly wonderful husband, Mack. He’s the guy in the white hat who scooped me up in his arms 20 years ago, and whirled me away into a lifetime of joy. Matt is an independent contractor and builds houses, garages, and wheelchair ramps. He also replaces roofs and installs light fixtures. That kind of thing.

For whatever reason, Mack got sick, the details of which are irrelevant, except for the cure, which involved various treatments at a clinic from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m., five days a week. When my boss was in town, it was only a matter of me coming in early and leaving late to make up for the two hours that I was gone, and I assured Mr. Tinbergen that during his vacation, I could get someone to take Mack to the clinic so that I would be present to manage the store. But immediately before he and his wife embarked on the QE2, my driver bailed on me, and I realized that I would have to do it all alone.

On top of this, my parents, whom I adore and who, for the past 20 years, have owned a vacation condominium in Florida, decided to move there full time and give Mack and me the marvelous mini-Victorian house that they owned, the only caveat being that Mom and Dad needed to be packed and ready to relocate within the same eight week period when I would be driving Mack to his clinic and running Mr. Tinbergen’s store. Which meant that we (meaning me, since Mack was sick) had to help them to sort through and pack up every item they had accumulated over the past 30 years.

During one of our riverside walks, I told Morris Thrift, the time engineer, my tale of woe.

After I finished, he told me a story, too, about a college professor named Andre who was in love with a woman named Marie, whom he met during a sabbatical in France. Before Andre returned home, Marie promised she would tie up her affairs, so that she could come to America, and they could get married. However, days prior to her departure, her country was invaded by the army of a merciless tyrant, and she’d had to flee. Before they lost touch (Was she alive? Dead?), she wrote to Andre that she was working her way through refugee camps and acquiring the necessary paperwork to leave Europe and join him.

The college professor waited in a fever of anxiety. Since it was summer, he had no classes to teach, and no obligations to fulfill. All he had was time, and too much of it. Time to worry. Time to envision worst- case scenarios. Time to stare at clocks, shred napkins, pace, and fret.

Before I tell you how Morris Thrift solved our problems, I want to describe that dear, enigmatic man. He is around five feet five inches tall, and has something of a paunch. Nothing offensive. More an indication that (probably thousands of years earlier) he had approached middle age. He has a very nice face with a square jaw, eyes that crinkle, and a smile that wordlessly seems to say “Well, hello!” He always wears a blue bowtie that perfectly matches his periwinkle blue eyes.

“Carol,” he said to me the day that we walked along the riverbank, “Will you put yourself in my hands?”

I stared into his eyes. They were, as always, kind. But imbued just then with uncharacteristic intensity.

“For what?”

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“To solve your problem.”

“Which one?” I laughed derisively. He did not laugh back, but silently returned my stare until I finally replied, “Yes, Morris. I trust you. I will put myself in your hands.”

I don’t know this for a fact, but I strongly suspect that Morris had the same conversation with Andre, the man waiting through anguished hours for his beloved Marie to materialize out of the mists of war.

What happened next was predictable in some ways, and impossible to predict in others.

Mr. and Mrs. Mr. Tinbergen boarded the QE2 and departed for Southampton, leaving me with a chaos of demands upon my time. Yet somehow (How? How? How?) I did it all, and I did it flawlessly.

I awoke at 6:00 a.m., fixed Mack’s breakfast, and settled him in his office. Even though ill health prevented him from climbing ladders or hammering nails, he could work on estimates, payroll, and contracts. I got to my job by 7:30 every morning, waited on customers, made bank deposits, oversaw sales associates, helped unload the truck, and performed the multitude of tasks associated with running a busy business.

I brought Mack to the clinic for treatments, returned to the store afterwards, and stayed until closing. I went to my parents’ house, helped them to sort through their belongings, helped them to deliver change-of-address forms to the post office, donate bags of books, clothing, appliances, and furniture to Good Will Industries, hire a moving van, and so on. I also made dinner, did dishes, and even managed to chat amiably with Mack before we popped off to bed.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Andre, who at the beginning of his ordeal, greeted each encroaching second like the slam of a sledge hammer against his heart, survived the wait because, as he told me the only time we met, “After that first agonizing day, time flew instead of crawled, and in the blink of an eye, Marie had obtained her visa, booked a flight, and was in my arms.”

It was not until three weeks after Mack was cured (and back at work) and Mr. T and his wife had come home that Morris Thrift explained how he had manipulated our lives. His blue eyes twinkling, and his bowtie bobbing up and down over Adam’s apple, he said, “Well, Carol, it was really quite simple. You didn’t have enough hours in the day, and Andre had too many. So I took the hours from him, and I gave them to you.”

As he spoke, I thought back over those eight weeks and realized that, yes ... I had been able to leave work at 3:00 p.m. each day to drive Mack to the clinic, wait two hours, and then drive him home. However, when I returned to the store, it was still only 3:00 p.m. Similarly, when I left the store at the end of the day to help my parents pack, I would get to their house at around 6:00 o’clock and help them for a few hours. But when I arrived at my own home to make dinner, it was still only 6:00 p.m.

I know ... I mean, I really, truly know that Morris Thrift was not put on earth to jiggle minutes and hours for shopkeepers and lovesick college professors. But that is exactly what he did for us. He took from one who had too much (Andre) and gave to one who didn’t have enough (me).

Shortly after Mr. Tinbergen decided to sell me the store and retire, Morris disappeared from my life. We had one last conversation, though, as we walked along the Susquehanna. First, I gushed my gratitude for all that he had done. Then I asked him how he’d done it. He focused his eyes on the branch of a giant oak tree drooping over the riverbank. But instead of answering, he asked, “Do you know the story about Thomas Jefferson and John Adams?”

“Not sure,” I replied. “Tell me.”

“During their presidencies,” Morris began, “they were often politically at odds. But after they retired, they began a correspondence that resulted in a strong friendship. Coincidentally, on July 4, 1826, both men died. John Adams was 90 years old. Thomas Jefferson was 83. The date of their deaths corresponded exactly with the 50 year jubilee of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.”

“Seriously?” I asked.

“Seriously,” the time engineer responded. “Even then, I realized that if they died simultaneously on the anniversary of their nation-making achievement, it would make a great story. So I took a few hours from here. I added a few hours to there, and voila,” He snapped his fingers. “A legend was born.”

I shook my head in amazement.

We continued to walk along the riverbank, and Morris continued to tell stories. The first began, “Did I ever tell you about Ben-Hur, Messala and the chariot race in Jerusalem?” And the second began with these words, “Do you remember, Carol, what happened during the frantic midnight ride of Paul Revere?”

Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2022. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com