The Ink Well Weekly Fiction Prompt #5: A Matter of Time

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay


Anywhere French culture and science are duly celebrated, it is a point of pride that the man who calculated the longest possible time in the universe is Henri Poincaré. He realized the universe can only be in so many states of being before states began to recur, like every clock goes around to every hour twice a day. Hence the term, “Poincaré recurrence time.”

The longest time in the universe is longer than just about anyone on earth could possibly imagine beside Monsieur Poincaré … and Jules Dubois, one day in April 2020.

April 2020 was indeed the month for fools; great googobs of people, even in high offices and pulpits, were talking about how Covid-19 would dissipate in warmer weather – maybe even by Easter. These were the kind of people that Jules emulated in his life as a financier in New York.

Just because Dubois Spice Cabinet had finally taken off wouldn't move Jules's baby brother René up to Jules' level in society, even though René had solid money and would soon have more when people stayed home and learned how the Dubois spice collection could make any meal taste like Mardi Gras. It just wasn't the kind of money Jules was interested in, especially since the door had been slammed on him getting any of it.

The market had crashed in March, of course, but, Jules had made a bunch of heavily leveraged investments on stocks that had bounced right back up in price. All his debt was now cleared, and he was up nicely in April. He was set, and prouder than ever. René didn't know how to do that. Their father didn't know how to do that.

That was the point. The Dubois family at large was content to stay largely French, largely Christian, largely humble, and relatively poor. None of them could do anything about being Black, of course, and most of them didn't even want to. His father had never aspired to anything but running a restaurant and a food truck – Jean-Luc Dubois was among Louisiana's food truck pioneers, but still: no more than that.

The Dubois family at large accepted their low estate, but that wasn't good enough for Jules.

He had made one mistake: thinking that his mother could see that all the family needed to do was to let him have the money René had finally figured out how to bring in. He in his March investments would have quintupled that money … and he would have given them two-fifths of that while telling them he had doubled it!

The rest he would have kept for the sheer annoyance of having to “hide” his family from polite society … it was so much cooler to be Black French from France, and have a very cultured family from there.

The mistake was asking his mother to go along with all that while forgetting his father's good ears.

Peré Dubois had disowned him, just like that.

His brothers Émile and Gilbert, who had been competing with him to try to get that money from the family's new business, had fared just as badly.

But then again, eldest brother Jean-Paul and baby brother René had always been the golden sons, and the six daughters had just adjusted to the reality.

Jules wasn't about to adjust. It was no big deal … until Jules woke up one April day in New York City, with a tickle in his throat.

Every morning Jules woke up at 6:00am to plan his trades in the pre-market and watch the news to get a sense of the trends of the day. For two months he had been ignoring the main trend: death, by the name of Covid-19, was walking unhindered through New York City. But, that was all old people – mostly, anyway. All those overfilled hospitals and refrigerator trucks for the dead – not going to happen to him. He was only 45. Never mind that the numbers already showed that Black men were dying at a much higher rate – those were poor men like his father. Not him.

Thus, Jules Dubois nearly had a heart attack when he was awake enough to realize that tickle in his throat. In with a quick warm salt-and-water rinse and a cough drop … but that tickle still turned into pain over the course of three hours of news, most of which was about Covid-19, itself known to begin with a sore throat, and then with a fever.

The temperature seemed to be ticking up every hour as Jules attempted to concentrate on making his trades … his hands had started to sweat and shake to the point that he had to dry them as he was working with his laptop. Still, as long as he had something to do, the denial could persist and the terror could be kept at bay. But then, the trades were done – and then he found himself in his kitchen, looking for the things his mother would have taken out when any of her children were starting to get sick.

But Jules didn't cook at home most of the time. He had only processed frozen meals for those occasions on which he did heavy day trading. A Dubois, living on processed food! He knew high blood pressure and high stress were bad indicators for surviving Covid-19, which seemed to explain the swift course of the symptoms coming on as the seconds and minutes ticked on.

Supplies – he had to have supplies – if he was diagnosed he'd have to stay in 14 days – and yet, he caught a look at himself in the mirror and knew he could not go even to the corner store … pale, because he bleached his skin, but with a soak of sweat on his forehead and dampening his hair, he looked very ill. This was a terrible time to realize he was still a Black man in New York. Someone could shoot him for being a threat to them or have the police do it. The city had a reputation, and Covid-19 would be all the excuse necessary for the city to uphold it.

Then, the phone call came.

“Jules – Leif is dead – he came down with Covid last week and was laughing and joking up to two days ago, but he went into a crisis last night and was dead by this morning!”

Leif Arnoldson – a regular young Viking, hard driving, crazy trading, fast living, 25 years old with the world in front of him. Or not. If he could die of Covid-19, anybody could.

Jules Dubois thanked his colleague, and then passed out on the floor. He woke up with chills, feeling his strength leaving him.

There was only one chance as he crawled on his hands and knees toward the phone. He knew how he had lived for the past 25 years. There was no point in begging God for anything. Yet he knew there were two people in the world whom God would always hear.

That phone rang for what seemed like an eternity … did they recognize his number, and were they refusing to answer him? Were they all right in Virginia? He hadn't checked on them. For all he knew, they had perished from la maladie.

The guilt of decades hit Jules like a load of bricks as the phone rang and the thundering of Jean-Luc Dubois's indictment came down on him at last … he had dishonored his parents and his family through his neglect and his lifestyle all those years. He became a broken man, right there, knowing he deserved to have that phone ring through eternity, unheard, as that fever rose until it delivered him to hellfire.

And yet!

Bon soir – I mean, good evening, Dubois residence!”

Maman Dubois, forever struggling to remember to speak English … her son broke down from relief upon hearing her voice, but he had heavy news.

"Mère …Mère, j'ai la maladie!"

She screamed: “Jean-Luc! Jean-Paul! Louisa! Viens vite – Jules a la maladie!

Jules heard his father's thundering voice filling the house: “Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu – je te supplie pour la vie de mon fils!

And he heard his father hit his knees and begin to beg the God he loved and served for the life of his son, right there by the phone. Meanwhile, Louisa hooked the conference line up, and Duboises and in-laws from Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, and Quebec began coming on that line to pray, for hours.

In the middle of that time, Peré Dubois addressed his son in English.

“Jules, my son, oh, my son, listen to me. You know who God is. You know who the Lord Jesus is, and you professed your belief in Him as Savior. We see what is happening in New York. We know how people are dying. It may be too late for that part--.”

And Peré Dubois had to stop to compose himself while Maman Dubois wailed at the thought.

“-- But, you must not face eternity in your sins! You must not! You must pray for yourself – you must confess and repent and ask God for your life for yourself. You do not have the palsy, you are not unconscious – you must make right with God yourself! You cannot ride into Heaven on your family's faith – if you have the faith, it is time you use it for yourself!”

Jules Dubois heard his father's thundering, but also the Heavenly Father, back of him … he fell on his face, and began confessing … all the pride and greed and bitterness and sin were given up at last.

The despised baby brother René came on the phone last of all, four hours into the call … he had been in conference calls with business suppliers until the late afternoon. He prayed first for his own sin, confessing his bitterness toward Jules, and prayed that he might forgive his brother so he could pray honestly for him.

The meeting of the two brothers repenting to their Heavenly Father made room for the answer.

“Wait a minute … has that cherry tree outside your home bloomed, Jules?”

Jules got up and ran to the window to see the most beautiful sight – the cherry tree had just bloomed out that morning, and started his seasonal allergies.

30 minutes into Jules taking his allergy medicine and turning on his air filter, his sore throat went away, as did all the other symptoms borne of his terror.

The Dubois extended family – all of them – burst into jubilation when at last it was clear: “L'allergie, pas la maladie!” It sounded like an entire Black French Louisiana “second line” had formed up, as long as the Mississippi River … and suddenly, all Jules Dubois wanted was to go home, home to all of it.

The next day, Jules got tested for Covid-19, and used the waiting time – the second longest time – to put his affairs in New York City in order for him to leave, for good. Once that test came in as Covid-negative, he got into his car and drove 470 miles south to Tinyville, VA, home to the forgiving love of his parents, his brother Jean-Paul, and his niece Louisa.

No fatted calves for the Dubois prodigal son come home, but gumbo was made in Quebec, Virginia, Louisiana, and Texas that weekend!

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