Steel doors slam. The sound of flushing toilets and constant chatter fill the death row’s hallways. A man in an orange jumpsuit sits on a bunk inside a cell the size of a small bathroom. He’s black, heavyset, and wears a nylon skullcap. There is no decoration except for peeling white paint, a steel sink, toilet without a seat, and a half-dozen textbooks on a shelf. The prisoner puts a book back and speaks.
“Got nothing else to do in her but think about time. I’ve been on death row for eight years, three months, and twenty-seven days. Breakfast comes at 7:00 AM, lunch at noon, and dinner at 6:30. Lights out at 11:00. Most people say, ‘Time flows like a river.’ That’s what Isaac Newton thought. For him time was a grandfather clock in the center of the universe where everybody heard the same ticking.
“Around 1900 Einstein said that wasn’t right. Clocks tick slower when they’re moving and two things might occur simultaneously for one observer while occurring at different times for another. To come up with these conclusions Old Albert had to stop thinking only about objects at positions and consider events that occurred at specific places and times. He made time another coordinate just like length, width, and depth. But if time is just another coordinate, how come you can’t move around in it? Why does time only go in one direction? Why do I experience the present but not the past or future?
“What’s weird about time’s arrow is that the laws of motion for atoms and stuff work the same whether time moves forward or backward. Time only has direction when you get to big things. Scientists say this is because of entropy or the amount of disorder. There’s a rule called the Second Law of Thermodynamics that says disorder tends to increase. Say you drop a glass on the floor. There are millions of ways for it to break into pieces but only one for those pieces to reassemble into a glass. Entropy increases, glasses break but don’t reassemble. Hence the arrow of time.”
The sound of yelling comes from the hall as prisoners argue about cigarettes.
“Hey, shut the fuck up! Now where was I? Oh yeah. As for the last question some people think that only now is real. Others think all time is real but we only perceive the present. So for instance the beginning of time at the Big Bang, my birth, the day I shot that lying weasel Shorty Ruiz, and the moment they put the needle in my arm for doing it all exist in something called Block Time. Some scientists even say it’s possible to make a machine that would let me go back and undo what I did to Shorty (not that he didn’t deserve it but just that it’s not worth me dying for). You could do it by moving one end of a wormhole away and then back or by riding a rocket ship around in infinitely long, spinning black hole. You’re probably wondering what would happen if I went back in time and killed my grandfather. That won’t be a problem because I’m not likely to get any wormholes, black holes, or rocket ships in here.
“The only comfort I got comes from a Greek philosopher named Zeno. He said something like the following. There’s two weeks until my execution. In half that time there will be one, in half that three and a half days, and so on. Old Zeno said the wait will get smaller and smaller but will never arrive at the end. Now that may sound like bullshit to you but it’s all I got, man. It’s all I got.”
Jon Wesick is the host of San Diego’s Gelato Poetry Series and is an editor of the San Diego Poetry Annual. Wesick has published over seventy short stories in journals such as The Berkeley Fiction Review, Space and Time, Zahir, and Tales of the Talisman. He has also published over three hundred poems in journals such as the Atlanta Review, Pearl, and Slipstream. Wesick has a Ph.D. in physics and is a longtime student of Buddhism and the martial arts. One of his poems won second place in the 2007 African American Writers and Artists contest. Another had a link on the Car Talk website.