There was a strange old man at the campus coffee shop nearly every day, sitting on a long-legged chair next to the window, sipping his drink and watching the students pass by. He seemed simultaneously gleeful and crestfallen, an air of resigned happiness about him, as if he were trying to force himself to see the bright side in everything and failing. Some people avoided him; they thought he was a creep or senile or both. A few tried to befriend him, they’d sit at his little circular table, cup of coffee steaming in their hands. They’d talk to him, but he’d just sit there, smile politely, with that same weary joy with which he viewed everything. This led people to guess that he was a refugee (of some massacre or genocide or other unavoidable disaster) who couldn’t speak English. To most of us he was a fixture, as much a part of the scenery as the tables and chairs.
To the best of my knowledge, I am the only person he ever spoke to. Probably because I happened to be there at the time, but maybe not. I would like to think that there was some reason besides proximity that caused him to open up to me, but excluding my own vanity I’m drawing a blank.
I was sitting at the table next to his, we were back to back. Him sipping his coffee, me trying to memorize a set of equations for Statistics. Near the door, two freshmen were having a very loud discussion.
“I saw a poll online,” one of them, a boy with greasy black hair, said, “That asked ‘If you had a time machine, would you kill Hitler?’ And a majority said ‘No.’ Isn’t that awful?”
The other one, a girl with shoulder-length red hair, nodded emphatically as they walked out.
After they left, the old man started whispering. He was so quiet I almost didn’t realize he had spoken at all. I caught the tail end of his statement, something about truth and labels. I twisted around in my chair to face him.
“Excuse me?” I said.
The man didn’t turn but spoke a little louder. His voice was raspy and reminded me of rust. I cannot say with any degree of certainty if what he said was true, but I know he believed it. I think I do, too.
He said: “‘The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true. So I elect for neither label.’” He sighed, took a sip of his coffee. “A satirist wrote that, James Cabell. He fell out of popularity in the 1930’s. A critic at the time said that this was because ‘Cabell and Hitler did not inhabit the same universe.’ Perhaps. Perhaps that would be different, too. Cabell might have continued to be successful, and paved the way for a golden age of irony.” He made a series of shallow rasping noises. It took me a few moments to realize that he was chuckling. “Would you do it? If you suddenly found yourself in the past, would you kill Hitler?”
I thought about it for a moment. Before I could answer, he continued.
“The fact that no time traveler has done so is, to many, proof that time travel will always remain impossible. For how could any society capable of retroactively preventing such a dark patch in mankind’s history possibly choose not to do so? Why, they ask, would they allow a fool who spent his time dabbling in the occult, who would send his forces on foot into Russia, a man who did many truly evil things, but nonetheless a man who did a poor job of leading an empire, why would they let him live?” His voice got scratchy and wavered. He took a sip of his coffee. When he spoke again, I realized he had no accent.
“What if I told you,” he said, still not facing me, maybe not even talking to me, “that time travel is real. That in the future, we’re able to trace the entire history of mankind, from the cradle of life to the grave. That we can change things, anything we want. That the universe can withstand paradoxes and logical fallacies, because the universe isn’t logical.” He turned towards me, his face not much more than a foot away. “What if I told you that, of every possible sequence of events, of every reality, this one, with its war and hatred and famine, this world is the best possible outcome? What if I told you that we are living in the best of all possible worlds, and that I know that’s true?”
I think that one of my greatest regrets will be that I said nothing then. He stared at me for a long moment, looking for something. Gratitude? Condemnation? Apology? Whatever it was, I couldn’t give it to him, so he left.
He wasn’t there the next day, or any day after that. I tried to find someone who knew his name. The cashier said he always paid cash, so she never got his name off a credit card. No one knew anything. A lot of them asked me what I knew, because word had gotten around that I was the last, and only, person he spoke to.
I don’t know if I believe him. But about a week after he disappeared, the cashier showed me a bronze coin the old man had put it in the tip jar. On the back was a picture of Hearst Castle. On the front, below the number 2867, was a portrait of Mussolini.