“The New Deal will bring reform and relief to citizens riddled by the Depression!”
The spray of Franklin Roosevelt’s words on my face might have been alarming, if I hadn’t already experienced five horrifying minutes of the French Revolution, thirty equally terrifying seconds of a hanging in Salem, and an unforgettable fifteen minutes at Woodstock. Panic had subsided sometime in the middle of Joplin’s “Summertime,” and survival had set in. It was like riding a really big wave.
This was, absolutely, the last time I bought cold medicine from a corner apothecary selling Goddess statues, patchouli and new leases on life. Nowhere in my list of symptoms had I indicated, “And if you can throw something in there that will make me time travel every time I sneeze, that’d be great!”
I should have watched “Quantum Leap” like it was an instructional video.
Presently, I was standing alongside Roosevelt, as he spoke into a radio station microphone the size of a carnival lollipop. Tapping into the cobweb-covered area of my brain that stored miscellaneous tidbits from first year college history, I assumed it was a “fireside chat” program, circa early 1930s. Apparently, I was a “working woman” because I was placed at the “sounding bell,” which I was supposed to chime when instructed. Hal, the station manager, was to cue me when I needed to sound the bell. He sat in a corner with a “cup o’ Joe” in one hand and the stub of a cigar dangling from his lower lip.
This was bizarre, to say the least. I had already considered the usual “how I could be time traveling” theories, which only added to the surrealistic sensation. For instance, perhaps I was dead. It was certainly a possibility. The cold medicine could have poisoned me. Perhaps we all just time traveled once we passed away. A bit more benign was the theory that I’d fallen asleep. The cold medicine, as most do, knocked me out. In fact, it probably had hallucinogenic properties, which were giving me super weird historical time traveling dreams. It was possible, I decided, mentally shrugging. Besides, this level of indifference felt better than the death theory or the chance that I might be going clinically insane. Basically, I had no choice but to muddle through this weird hemlock-inspired dream. What was in that concoction meant to treat my stuffy nose, sore throat and cough?
The station manager cleared his throat and gave me the evil eye because I’d missed my cue. This was corroborated by the fact that President Roosevelt was gaping at me as well, almost pleadingly. In fact, the entire room was statuesque as they waited for me to “ding” the bell. My heart hammered in my chest and my cheeks felt hot, but I lifted the little wooden mallet and chimed the silver bell, allowing everyone sixty seconds to move about, breathe, converse amongst each other, and not be heard by hundreds of listeners.
Hal, a short, stodgy man, leapt off the stool he’d been sitting on and charged toward me. “Didn’t they teach you to watch for cues?” he demanded, the stogy on his lip bobbing with each barked syllable. His face was littered with dark stubble and his cheeks were red hot.
In spite of his frustration, a small but precocious part of me wanted to laugh. How was one taught the art of bell dinging? At bell dinging academies? I stifled my giggles and apologized instead.
Hal stood there, hands on his hips, and I wondered if he was going to fire me. From my pretend job. In an era existing fifty years before I was born. In my hallucination. What he did was give me a quizzical once over, as if seeing me for the first time. He was probably curious as to the audacity I had wearing a pantsuit when I should have been dressed like Betty Boop. I was an investment banker by trade and this whole weird “time travel by sneezing” event had begun while sitting at my desk, looking over the Spencer portfolio. One sneeze later, I was dodging bullets in France, marveling over height-challenged Napoleon’s fabulous sense of style.
Hal drew a long puff from his cigar, letting the smoke trail out of his nose and mouth in a very dragonesque manner. As the white fingers of charred tobacco wafted to my nose, I felt it come. It was the slightest tingle at first, then a fully bonafide sneeze exploded between us.
In the split second of darkness, pinpoints of light broke through, slowly revealing a new picture. Like the times before, for the first few seconds, I desperately tried to get my bearings. There was screaming. Not a single voice, but a mass of them. I was being pushed and shoved in a crazy, chaotic way that didn’t seem pointed in any single direction. Where was I? When was I?
I began to panic. Not a fan of crowds, this was my worst nightmare. It was dark and difficult to identify details. What year was this? What was happening?
“Elvis! Elvis!” The screams were deafening and I caught the girl in front of me as she fell backwards in a swoon. Images I’d seen in Time Magazine flashed through my mind. I was in the middle of the Elvis craze. Briefly, I cursed the time travel gods. It couldn’t have been his debut on the “Ed Sullivan Show?” I’d been gypped.
The girl in my arms came to and her squealy girlfriends snatched her out of my grasp, fanning her with their programs, each looking as if they could, at any given time, pass out themselves.
“Thank you . . . thank you very much. . . .” Elvis spoke into the microphone, his sweet Southern drawl so on point. He stood up on that stage, in all of his youth and glory, dressed in black, the sweat of a good performance soaking him. I found myself caught up in the energy of the moment, much as I had at Woodstock, and I let out squeals of delight like every other girl in the auditorium. I was certain I confused the teenagers around me by stabbing the air with my rock n’ roll hand horns and belting out, “You’re the bomb, Elvis!” Feeling like Marty McFly, I realized those words and gestures wouldn’t find their way into pop culture for a while.
Halfway into “Jailhouse Rock,” someone’s flowery perfume assaulted my olfactory system and I sneezed myself out of the concert and into the Colorado Dust Bowl. The bad news was, it was the Dust Bowl and dirt stings when it hits your face. The good news was, it was the Dust Bowl and five seconds after arriving, I sneezed again.
I have always had a great affinity for the Titanic’s history. It would have been nice to have arrived before the ship hit the iceberg, but then I would have missed Molly Brown thrusting a life jacket into my arms while insisting we needed to convince the “yellow bellied” men that women and children were to board the lifeboats first. “I don’t know why they didn’t supply this ship with more damn boats!” she shouted above the rising mayhem. I stared at her wordlessly, appreciating the fact that Kathy Bates had been a great choice for the movie and James Cameron was a genius.
It was freezing and my polyester blend pantsuit was worthless. My fingertips stung from the bite of it and my nose was starting to run. People were racing about fraught with hysteria. Some lugged suitcases, expensive furs and linens draped over them. It was clear none of them realized that not only would their belongings not make it, but most of them wouldn’t either.
My heart ached and my eyes stung. The tearstained faces of sobbing children. Mothers with expressions of desperation and fear. Fathers literally losing their minds, having been stripped of their individual rights to protect their families by a chunk of ice in the middle of the ocean. I couldn’t bear it. I tried to stave off an emotional break down by convincing myself this was a hallucination of an event that had transpired decades before my birth. That made it at least feel as if I was very actively watching a movie.
I trailed Kathy – I mean Molly Brown. We doled out life jackets, even though we both knew anyone who had to use them would probably freeze to death before help arrived. Molly was no idiot, and I, well, I had watched Titanic.
Before I could stop myself, I muttered in front of Molly, “This boat sinks.”
She looked at me out of the corner of her eye and chortled, “All boats sink, you goose!” Then she turned around to continue firing off instructions to the women and children gathered by the lifeboats. The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
My head was spinning. I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t be there. I knew how it would end. Suicides. Frozen bodies in the water. Rose clinging to a piece of furniture while Jack sank to the bottom. My breath caught in that odd space between my throat and my lungs and I turned on my heels, away from Molly, though not away from the scene. Instead, I could very clearly see that the ship was already angling, a tip of it settled deep into the water.
Could I die here? Panic set in. I had to find a way out. Where was a sneeze when I needed one? I tickled the roof of my mouth as they lowered a lifeboat filled with mothers and children. The little ones wailed, reaching out toward the ship for their fathers, their mothers weeping uncontrollably.
This was heartbreaking. I needed to sneeze before I jumped off the side of the ship myself. I had to escape the pandemonium and reality of what was happening.
The little girl, dressed in black and grey, waited alongside her mother for a lifeboat. She stood surprisingly still amidst the clamor of fear of frenzy. In her arms was a calico kitten that appeared to be as calm as the child. The young girl looked up at me and smiled softly, then said, in perfect English, “You look scared. Here. Hold my kitty. It’ll help.”
I took the small bundle of fur. We locked gazes and I felt my heart ache. “Listen to me,” I said. “When you and your mother are on that lifeboat, you huddle together, really close, to keep warm. To do that, you have to make sure you don’t fall asleep. Understand?” Her brown-eyed gaze locked with mine and she nodded as if she understood that and so much more.
I took the small bundle of fur from her and pressed it up to my face. I didn’t have many allergies, but when it came to cats, they were my kryptonite, capable of producing not just one sneeze, but a succession of them. Fleetingly, I think I may have been in Vietnam during the war, at a Civil Rights protest in Selma, at President Kennedy’s assassination, and a part of the film crew during the production of “Gone with the Wind.” At least I think that was Vivien Leigh.
Ultimately, I was at my desk again. I assumed the cold medicine had worn off. No more hallucinations. For good measure, I tossed the bottle of cold medicine into the trash. I’d live with the temporary stuffy nose, sore throat and cough.
Outside my office door, I could hear telephones ringing, the dull murmur of voices conducting business, footsteps passing my door on their way to the break room, and the steady hum of normalcy. I sank into my seat and let out a sigh of relief, arching my head back, and pressing my eyelids closed for a moment. It was certainly the most interesting experience I’d ever had on cold medicine, but it felt good to be in the present again. At the very least, it was good to know I wasn’t losing my mind.
Reclined in my office chair, I might have dozed off, if not for the quiet but unmistakable “mew-mew,” which led me to find a calico kitten under my desk. I gasped, shocked, as it leapt into my lap. There was no time to question its presence. At least not before the sneeze.
Suzanne Marie Calvin-Yim is a late-in-life student, majoring in English with a minor in Secondary Education. A seasoned wearer of many hats, she has worked as a waitress, bank teller, paralegal, and a Certified Nurse Aide, in addition to having homeschooled her son and daughter. She has three published romance novels with Amber Quill Press, and has freelanced for The Colorado Springs Independent and Out Front Colorado. Suzanne lives in Colorado Springs with her wife, Juli, her adult son and daughter, and Lily the human Schnauzer. Her hobbies include swimming, hiking, biking, reading, watching British films, and thinking reflectively. Currently, she is working on two novels and a collection of short stories.