“Step right up, step right up! Come see the most amazing invention in all the world! Photographs and moving pictures are nothing in the face of the marvels you’ll see here!”
I craned my neck and snuck through the small crowd to see what the miscreant had to sell, especially considering how great he claimed the invention was, but most everyone else chuckled and smirked at the man’s tactics. After all, who was going to pay a dollar for five minutes with the machine? The thing had better cure death if that’s how much the man thought people were going to pay for it.
A lady in many petticoats stepped up to the man’s wagon, holding her parasol in gloved hands as she did. A tall man in a suit with long coattails accompanied her, smiling and looking down at his dandy little woman. His teeth were whiter than the average man’s; I gathered he was one of those tooth-brushers, the way those pearly whites gleamed.
“Can you tell us, sir, what exactly your invention is supposed to do?” the aristocratic lady asked, twirling her parasol. I rubbed my grimy fingers on the breast of my coveralls, feeling small and out of place in the face of her lavish gown.
The salesman smiled, eyeing the fine material of her man’s suit. “Why, little lady, it’s the most incredible invention ever dreamt up! It uses lenses and electrics and magnets to focus the stream of time and… well, don’t fret your pretty little head about how it works, because I’ve figured it out. Buy a few minutes with the Future Goggles and see times far beyond imagination, examine the ways people live a hundred years from now!”
The lady lifted a brow and held tight to her man’s arm. “Why, that sounds absolutely absurd. Lenses focusing through time… hmph!”
“Ah, but you’re interested, aren’t you? How about you take me up on a little bet: you try it out, and if you don’t see the future, you get your money back. Guaranteed.” The sleazy salesman took a heavy piece of machinery from his wagon, adjusting the leather straps to fit the little lady’s head.
She looked to her tall, fancy man pleadingly until he nodded and removed a silver coin from his pocket, placing it in the salesman’s palm. With a toothy grin, the salesman took the goggles and placed them carefully over the lady’s hat, tightening the strap so as to keep the large apparatus snug on her head.
The woman’s nose wrinkled and her lips bent into a frown. “I see nothing, you dolt!”
Chuckling and shaking his head at her, the salesman took the woman’s left hand and placed it on the side of the goggles. “That’s because the switch hasn’t been thrown. The steam engine in the wagon will produce the electrics that make the goggles work, but you’ve got to throw this switch when you’re ready. Feel it, miss?”
The lady nodded. “Yes. And you’re sure this is safe?”
The woman threw the switch and the salesman let go. The heft of the goggles forced her to stumble a bit, causing her face to point upward as she fell backwards. Eventually she got control and held the device steady with her hands. I examined the expression on her face as she looked up, above the buildings in town, with awe and wonder. “What is this? Look at these lights – there’s got to be millions of them! And in the sky, what is that? It’s… is it a flying machine? This is amazing, so realistic.”
The salesman patted her on the back to the chagrin of the lady’s escort. “That’s because it is real, miss.”
The tux-wearing fellow stole her waist back, hugging her close. “Now, don’t get too carried away with this, dear. You don’t want to get hysteria.” He swept his hand up to her shoulder, knocking away the salesman. His fingers fumbled with the strap, trying to remove the goggles from her face.
Suddenly, though, the lady looked back at street level and her expression changed. “Good heavens, sir! You disgusting pig!” Her countenance fell, even though she held tight to the leather strap, refusing to let her dandy fellow remove the goggles and save her from rotting her brain with new thoughts. “The nerve of you, selling a peep show in public! Those women are barely clothed, I tell you, hardly fit for the eyes of God-fearing-“
“I’ll pay for a few minutes,” a man in the crowd piped up.
“Give me a chance on ‘em too, sir!”
I swallowed my pride and, seeing that the chance would soon be out of my grasp, called out, “I want to see!”
Instantly, a swarm of men were crowding around the stand, clamoring for the two remaining sets of Future Goggles that the salesman was peddling time with.
The salesman’s face drooped as he guarded his wares, but then his finely waxed moustache curled with the smile on his lips. “No, this isn’t a peep show! The women of the future seem to wear trousers, yes, very tight trousers that fit their curves and frame the ways men of our time can hardly fathom, but my goggles are a tool to enlighten and teach, not to satisfy one’s vices.”
“Don’t care,” John, the stable owner, said. “Here’s a dollar.” He handed over four silver coins, dropping them into the salesman’s palm, five minutes accounted for. Goggles went over his head, and the switch was thrown. John pointed at empty places on the street, whistling. “Lookit! It’s just like it were the real thing!”
“Pig!” the lady cried out, pointing her begoggled face at him.
It was simply too much to resist. I took out the silver dollar I had in my pocket, trying not to think about what my wife and kid might say to me spending a third of my freshly earned wages, and shoved it into the salesman’s hand. “Let me see,” I said. “Let me see the future.”
I felt the steel lined with leather bits as the salesman wrapped the goggles around my head, tightened the strap in the buckle, and placed my hand on the switch. I looked out the lenses of the goggles to see my town, a bit blurry but nonetheless the one that I lived in, before I flipped the switch.
The lenses shone brightly for less than a second before I saw the blurred images depicting what, as I could only imagine, had to be the future.
Around me in every direction were horseless carriages. Men and women were sitting in them, driving these carriages in both directions on the street. Sure, the women were wearing trousers, but how could anyone focus on that when there were tall structures made of glass erected to the sky? When there were flying machines, when there were restaurants on every corner, when horseless carriages ruled the streets?
I looked up at the street and saw a glowing sign with the words “Coca-Cola” on them, an advertisement for one of those tonics people sold. I whirled around and, seeing no competing tonic sales, wondered if this was the only one that actually cured what ails you.
I walked a couple steps but was jerked back by a hand. I heard the salesman’s voice, even though I couldn’t see him, say, “The electrics are coming from the wagon! You can’t go too far, boy, or you’ll pull out the wiring and get shocked.”
Obeying the voice, I reached out blindly until the salesman whipped me back towards the wagon where he wanted me. I examined the tall buildings, looked at the sky-high posters, and wished I could smell the scent of the food coming out of the sparkling restaurants.
A harrumph from the fancy lady next to me grabbed my attention. “This is all well and good, but those trousers – I’m going to tell my daughters to dress well, make sure those atrocities never come into fashion!”
“Sorry to interrupt, miss,” I heard the salesman say, “But your time’s up.”
I heard the switch on the lady’s goggles flip, the metal buckles on the leather straps tinkling as they were released.
As soon as her goggles were removed, what my eyes saw began to change. The restaurants shrank and became dirtier while the women’s pants became less revealing then slowly ballooned into dresses not dissimilar from those on women I saw every day.
“No! Johnny, pay him some more! It was so interesting, so-“
“I don’t think so,” the rich Johnny replied. “Thank you, sir, for your invention, but I believe I shall remove her from the premises before she sees too much.”
The salesman chuckled while I heard another person’s money clink into his hand. “No trouble. Thank you for your business.”
I turned around, seeing a horseless carriage coming at me faster than any of the others. It zoomed, several of the other carriages lunging to the left and right to get out of the way. My body flinched and my throat yelped as the carriage reached me, steel pieces flying up from the front of it, smoke fuming out from under the bent coverings.
“Mother of God!” John called out, “You took the half-nekkid future women away! I’m not going to sit here and look at these dangerous carriages and the idiots that use them if there’s no nekkid ladies!”
The salesman stomped over to where John had spoken. “What? I’ve never had that problem before. Keep watching, just keep watching and see if they come back.”
The man to my right who had taken the goggles from the rich lady harrumphed. “You cheating scoundrel! Was that first lady who bought this a plant?” His voice, with a deep and raspy quality of a long-time tobacco smoker, was immediately recognizable as the town’s general store owner. “I paid for half-naked future women, not for the kind of trollops I can already see by lookin’ out my front door. And that’s another thing, too – where’d the future get off destroying my shop!? They can’t put another building there!”
I couldn’t see their faces or become invested in John’s or the shopkeeper’s argument. Bits and pieces of the complex machinery that made up a couple horseless carriages were hanging out all over the road. I cringed as I saw a bit of blood on broken glass.
“Lord have mercy!” John shouted. “Look at what happens when you get rid of the horse and buggy – danger, destruction, outrage!”
I wiped a bit of sweat from my face. There had to be a payoff, a reason that people of the future chose to use the horseless carriages. They seemed fantastical machines, perhaps just a small piece of what made the future better.
John flipped his switch and unbuckled his goggles. “When I get home, I’m tellin’ my kids never to get one of them whimmyjigs. No sirree, horse and buggy for me and mine, safe and sound.”
Another person paid with a few clinking coins and took the goggles. It wasn’t a moment, though, before I noticed the carriages change. The advertisements on the enormous posters wiped themselves free of anything pertaining to the horseless carriage, the flying machines in the sky changed shape and disappeared, and finally horses and buggies replaced all the machines.
The switch on my goggles flipped, the visage of my town through blurry lenses returning. The salesman reached his chubby hands around my head to my goggles’ buckle. I scrambled, pulling some money from my pocket. “I’ll pay you for more time.” I handed him a dollar, cringing as I thought about how my wife would kick me out.
“Someone else is waiting in line,” the salesman said.
I pulled out the last coin to my name and shoved it into his hands. “Here – two dollars for five minutes.”
A wiry little man who was in line frowned at me. “Hey, I paid for a ride! You gonna let this colored take my spot?”
I flinched, but the salesman chuckled and put the goggles back on my head. He looked to the wiry man, explaining, “You’ll get your turn, mister, but profit calls and this negro offered more than you. You want to pay three dollars to kick him off?”
The wiry man shook his head, so I flipped the switch and returned to the future.
The new presence of the horses and heavily clothed women couldn’t overshadow the massive buildings, couldn’t get rid of the progress that man had made. The future was still very interesting, I would say better, than now.
It was only a couple more minutes before people began clamoring for the storekeeper’s set of goggles. As he stepped away, I heard him claim, “Nothing I know and love is here – where is my shop? What happened to it? I’m not going to let my business die! I’ll never sell my land!”
Remembering what had happened to the ladies’ fashions and horseless carriages, I held my breath. I hoped that the pattern of wishes coming true and declarations holding fast didn’t continue. I enjoyed the buildings that touched the sky, their shiny glass and sweeping steel.
The man’s switch flipped and I clenched my fists in dear hope that nothing would change, but I saw the buildings shrink down to dilapidated versions of the wooden structures present in my own time. My heart pounded in my chest as I looked at the future, the grandeur and mystery of the place nearly gone.
I heard movement and a voice from the man who had taken the goggles from John. Through the gap between the bottom of the goggles and my own cheeks, I could see his white beard waggling as he asked, “What are these lights? Are you… are you telling me that my legacy to my children will be forgotten?” I recognized his voice as that of the town’s oil lantern maker, one of the most backwards and nostalgic old men I’d ever known. I heard the buckle on his goggles unclip as he thrust the machine towards the salesman. “There’s nothing good about the future – this whole thing was a waste! I’m leaving!”
As the bright lights of the future dimmed to mere flames, I felt the corners of my lips fall, my heart drop. So many things were gone, never to be regained. How could so many good things be destroyed? How could the future be so easily broken?
Two sets of goggles were empty, and the crowd grumbled in discontent. “Too good to be true,” I heard a woman mumble. Skirts and trousers ruffled as the crowd dissipated. A man agreed with the woman, “Those first customers were probably plants. Let’s not waste our money.”
As I looked at the future, I realized that what I now saw was a waste. I recalled the future I had seen earlier and longed for it, wished with all my might that it could happen. Though probably nothing would be able to undo all that damage, I resolved to do what I could to bring it back.
The salesman carefully put down the heavy goggles on the back of the wagon. Though my clock was still ticking, possibly out of time as it was, he didn’t move to take my pair of goggles back. I heard a heavy sigh and a grumble just before he punched the side of his wagon, a horse snorting in derision.
Clicking my tongue and shaking my head, I undid the buckles on the back of the goggles and lowered the mechanism carefully onto the wagon with the two others. The salesman reached across me, grabbing the goggles perched upon the wagon, and tossed them, the glass lenses breaking loudly. I jumped as they shattered, a small yelp escaping my lips.
For a moment, he tilted his head to look at me, then scowled and returned his attention to the wooden side of his cart. “What do you want?” he muttered curtly.
I stammered as I answered, “I think I want my money back.”
“What?” The salesman turned his head to glare at me, his lips frowning and his eyes squinted tight. “You saw the future! You even paid me for a second ride – don’t try to lie to me, boy.”
I shrugged. He was right, in a way. “I hate to say it, sir. Am I really looking at the future when everything’s the same as it is right now?”
He huffed, wiping his nose and trying to seem like he wasn’t upset. “You ain’t getting a red cent out of me. I know it works, saw the future myself. Every time someone got on, though, they didn’t like what they saw.” With shaking, angry, fingers, he picked up the goggles, clutching them dangerously tight. “Isn’t it just the damnedest thing how fragile time is? How a small person, with only his tiny influence, can run the whole thing off the rails?”
I nodded. “Yessir, that’s mighty interesting. Maybe that’s why God didn’t make us such that we could see the future. We’re too liable to break it.” I began to walk away, thinking about reassuring the salesman, but resolved not to. If others could break the future, maybe I could save it. No one would ever know what I’d done, but all the men and women of the future would be truly free from the past’s shackles.
I sauntered away, hands in my pockets and a tune whistling from my lips, as I heard the sounds of breaking glass, of horses rearing as wires were yanked out of the electrics machine. The salesman cursed and tossed the goggles, destroying his fantastical invention. With each subsequent clang and rattle of destruction, I walked faster. The salesman’s machine, just like the future and anything else man creates, could be broken.