Critical Thought: Hector

This story emerged out of a love of film noir and a terrible, recurring nightmare of being trapped in a loop, doomed to relieve—with slight variations—the same scenario over and over again. (Come to think of it, the fact that the nightmare is recurring is a strange fulfillment of that fear.) I love the gaps, the blank spaces, the blind spots in stories like this, and I tried very carefully to provide just enough plot to carry the story forward but not so much as to answer the dark question which lies at the murky bottom of “Hector & Hector.”

I’ve been reading the work of Brian Greene lately, a theoretical physicist (and I know nothing about theoretical physics except from what I’ve read from his books and a few others) who argues that at the quantum level, there is no rational explanation for differences between past, present, and future. In loving detail, he shows how our very conception of time—so basic to who we are that we don’t even really know how to formulate frameworks for investigating it—is not provable, yet. In quantum physics, there is no reason or even unified theory for why time moves forward. What I think literature can do is create an imaginative exploration of this idea, because narrative (A happens, then B happens, then C happens but not, as Jean-Luc Godard once said, necessarily in that order) allows us to exert some measure of control over the representation of time. Some day, physics might even catch up.

Nicholas Rombes’ work has appeared in Oxford American, 48 HR Magazine, Exquisite Corpse, Metazen, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. His books include A Cultural Dictionary of Punk and Ramones (part of the 33 1/3 series), and his film column 10/40/70 appears at The Rumpus. His serialized novel, Nightmare Trails at Knifepoint, is published in monthly installments. He can be found at nicholasrombes.blogspot.com.

Hector & Hector

Hutton waits in the car. These were his instructions. To wait.

It is late in the afternoon, now. He has been there since 10 am, in his gray suit. Out the passenger side window is a city park. Families come and go. Out the driver side window is an old red-brick apartment building, with beautiful leaded windows and black iron work around the steps. Out the front windshield the street divides into a boulevard about 50 yards ahead of the parked car.

The car windows are open. A fluke warm day in late October. Hutton gets out to stretch, the 10th or 12th time today. Puts his arms above his head. Reaches down to his shoes. Gets back in the car.

Finally, as the sun begins to set in furious orange, the back door opens, a man slides in. Hutton knows him as Hector. Dressed entirely in white. Large hands. Full beard.

“Well,” Hector says. “How’d it go?”

“Good, I guess. Nothing happened.”

“Was something supposed to happen?”

“Well, I thought . . .”

“Just a joke, Hutton. Of course something happened. Now tell me what you saw.”

Hutton had taken some notes in a small, flip-spiral notebook provided him by Hector that morning. His jottings were mundane: boy falls off swing, 10:20; low-flying plane & everyone in park looks up, 11:07; two men in sweatsuits argue in street, 11:30; Hector crosses street in distance, 2:35 . . .

Hector interrupts him. “Hector, as in me?”

“Yes. I think so. It looked like you.”

“And I crossed the street. In front of you.”

“Yes,” Hutton replies, “right up there,” motioning to just where the street forked into the boulevard.

Hector leans forward in the back seat. He smells like lemons. He points through the front windshield: “There?”

“About there, I suppose.”

“Drive me up there, Hutton,” Hector says abruptly, leaning back in his seat. “Drive me to where you think you saw me.”

Hector starts the car, adjusts the rearview mirror so that he can see Hector, pulls forward along the curb. The sun is very low now. The earth is disappearing. He stops.

“Here,” he says, stopping. “You crossed right about here.”

“From which side,” Hector asks.

“From left to right,” Hutton says, gesturing. “From there into the park.”

“And you’re sure it was me.”

“It sure as hell looked like you.”

“Of course.”

“I thought that was part of the assignment.”

“The assignment.”

Why I was here,” Hutton says. “To notice something unusual, out of the ordinary. Seeing you at 2:30—when you said you wouldn’t return until evening—was unusual.”

It was fully dark now. Hector had lit a cigarette, and Hutton could see him in the rearview mirror, the orange glow illuminating the vague shape of his bearded face. A distant siren wailed.

“Hutton,” Hector said, tapping his cigarette ashes outside the open backseat window, “let me ask you something.” He paused. “Let me ask you this: what if who you saw wasn’t me, but someone who looked just like me?”

Hutton thought about this for a moment. Turned the question over in his mind, wondered if it was some sort of trap.

Before he could answer, Hector was out the door, running down the boulevard.

“Follow me! Hutton!” Hutton started the car, turned on the headlights, followed Hector as he ran, impossibly fast it seemed, down the boulevard, his white suit glowing like phosphorous, until he came upon another man, also dressed in white, also running. Trying to follow as they cut through quiet side streets and down dark alleys, in and out of the car’s headlights, Hutton felt he was being led into some loop, some circumstance from which there was no escape, and that the longer he followed Hector and the Hector look-alike—now indistinguishable in the night in the uncertain glow of headlights—the more trouble he was in, the deeper into some maze. And that is why, at the last moment, Hutton turned the wheel in the opposite direction of the men he was following, and made his way back to the familiar highway, and drove in escape-mode at impossible speeds, ignoring the headlights behind him.

by Nicholas Rombes