Simmie Johnson was born the son of a slave. He was also a genius. After earning a PhD in physics from Tuskegee Institute, he wrote a paper outlining a theory for time travel, including plans for a time machine—called a Chronocar—which was published in a scientific journal in the early 1900s. Since the technology required to build the Chronocar did not yet exist, the paper and its brilliant writer faded into obscurity.
A century later, a young Illinois Tech student, Tony Carpenter, discovers the journal article and decides to build a Chronocar so he can travel back to 1919 to meet the black scientist he hopes to emulate.
Unfortunately, time is not on his side.
Dr. Johnson is living in Chicago’s Black Belt with his beautiful daughter, and Tony arrives just in time for the bloodiest race riot in the city’s history. Can Tony use the Chronocar to save his new friends, or will his attempt forever alter the future he hopes to return to?
“Steve Bellinger delivers his own unique brand of temporal exploration in the most innovative take on time travel that I have ever read. The characters in The Chronocar are solid. The plot is brain twisting and at times fun, at times deeply sobering. Be prepared for some interesting twists.” — Ronald Jones, Black Science Fiction Society
“Gritty, hilarious, and tragic by turns, Steve Bellinger has written a time-bending tale of scientific discovery, love, racism, and spilled ginger ale. From the moment Tony Carpenter crash-lands his flawed time machine into Dr. Simmie Johnson’s 1919 parlor, things get too real, too fast. Bellinger skillfully intertwines the earnest, wacky optimism of youth with historical culture-shocks to create a gripping, timeless story.” — Greg Comer, author, Winner Take None
“Bellinger eloquently unspools the story of Tony, Ollie, and Dr. Simmie Johnson in their pursuit of scientific achievement, self-discovery, love, and friendship across time. The author expertly navigates two eras separated by a hundred years and an even larger cultural divide, where rigid racial mores help foster a host of unintended consequences.” — Jennifer Leeper, author, Padre: The Narrowing Path
Straw Boss called out “Quittin’ time!” just before the whistle blew. Thirty shirtless exhausted men, their brawny bodies gleaming with sweat in the hot Mississippi sun, stopped what they were doing, not wanting to give the company a minute more than what they were getting paid for. It was a typical railroad work gang: coolies from China carried and placed the heavy ties, their bowed heads covered in traditional straw hats, and the Irishmen were trusted with actually laying the track. But the Negro men did the hardest and dirtiest work—digging ditches, moving big rocks, and some were allowed to pound in the spikes that fastened the iron to the wooden ties. Three-and-a-half miles of fresh railroad track lay behind them, and nobody had died. It had been a good day.
Simmie Johnson was in mid-swing. His herculean arms glistened in the sun as he brought the big hammer down. His cousin Willie held the stake in place and barely got his hand away as Simmie punched it several inches into the ground with a loud plink! Only one more stroke to go.
Simmie wielded the heavy mallet with ease. He was a tall, buff, handsome young black man, with a gentile nature about him, qualities that did not go unnoticed by young females. But Simmie had no time for women. Not now, at least. He had more important things to concern himself with, like finishing up here, collecting his pay, and getting home. The time would soon come when he would leave this dreadful life behind and make something of himself. Soon, very soon.
“Come on, Simmie,” Willie called. “We done fo’ today.”
Simmie followed Willie and the other weary workers to the tool wagon, where they surrendered their picks, shovels, and hammers to Straw Boss, a wiry middle-aged sunburned white man who had earned his position solely through his heritage.
“Put mine in the corner,” Willie said as he handed in his pick. “I want to use the same one next week.” Straw Boss threw Willie’s pick onto the pile.
“Hurry up, Simmie.” Willie tugged his arm, as Simmie lifted the heavy hammer to Straw Boss, who almost toppled out of the wagon from the weight. A minute later, they were standing in line at the pay wagon where Old Mr. Sykes distributed the wages.
Sykes was a chubby old man who wore thick spectacles and a green eyeshade that framed his balding head. “Okay, Willie J.” Sykes adjusted his glasses and licked his thumb. Then he peeled off dollar bills and counted out coins as he read off Willie’s pay record. “Five dollars and seventy-five cents.”
“Thank ya, suh.” Willie bowed, which was a slight gesture since his back naturally bent forward.
“Simmie Johnson,” Sykes said as he flipped through the book. Simmie stepped forward. “Here you go—seven dollars and twenty-five cents.”
“Thank you,” Simmie said, wondering why he should thank the man for giving him the money he had worked so hard to earn.
“Wait!” Willie grabbed Simmie’s arm and glared at Sykes. “Why he get more than me?”
“You didn’t show up for work on Wednesday,” Sykes said flatly, “and you left early yesterday. Lucky I don’t fire you!”
Willie frowned. “White man tryin’ to cheat me,” he mumbled as they stepped out of line.
“He’s not trying to cheat you.” Simmie sighed. “You’ve got to work a full day to get a full day’s pay.”
“You as bad as him,” Willie said, stuffing the money into his pocket. “Come on, let’s go get somethin’ to drink.”
Simmie carefully folded his money, placed it in a tattered envelope, and slipped it into his pocket. “I told you before, I don’t drink, and I don’t carouse around.”
“Naw, man, I mean let’s go to Ol’ Ben’s and get a cold pop.”
Simmie saw no harm in that, so they started down the dusty road toward town. Willie talked Black Pete into joining them. Black Pete was big, dark-skinned, and had even less sense than Willie. Simmie walked a few paces ahead of them, lost in thought.
“The quantity of motion, which is collected by taking the sum of the motions directed towards the same parts, and the difference of those that are directed to contrary parts, suffers no change from the action of bodies among themselves.”
“What?” Simmie said, annoyed at the interruption.
“How come it is that you so smart?” Willie asked.
“I mean, you can read, you can do ’cipherin’. You about as smart as any white man.”
Simmie stopped and looked at him. “Maybe smarter.”
“But why?” Willie said.
“Yeah, why?” Black Pete parroted.
Simmie shrugged. “I guess the good Lord saw fit to bless me with a good mind.”
“But why?” Willie asked again.
“I don’t know, ask him!” Simmie pointed toward the sky as he started walking again.
“Don’t make no sense,” Willie puzzled. “Why would the Lord give them kinds of smarts to a colored man?”
“What in the hell are you talking about, Willie?” Simmie stopped walking again.
“You smart, Simmie. Smarter than all the white men we works for. But what can you do with it?”
Simmie turned and resumed his pace. “I got plans.” He put his hand in his pocket and felt the envelope with money inside. Just a little more money and he could get away from this place. Then, finally, he could put his mind to work. No more pretending to be stupid just to stay out of trouble with the white man.
“What kind of plans?” Willie asked.
“I got plans. Don’t you worry about what kind. They are my plans. Hopefully, it is God’s will that I see them through.”
“So you do believe they’s a God, right?”
“Now, what kind of question is that?” Simmie scowled. “I’m the one who has to read the scriptures to you every night.”
“Big Momma say you don’t believe. Big Momma say you a heathen!”
“A heathen!” Black Pete echoed.
“Big Momma,” Simmie scoffed. “What does she know?”
“She say you study the devil,” Willie said softly.
“The devil,” Black Pete whispered.
“Now why would she say that?”
“’Cause she found that book under yo’ bed.”
Simmie turned and faced Willie. “What book?” he asked, knowing full well which book. He only owned two. And what was Big Momma doing going through his things?
“That… prince book.” Willie cringed under Simmie’s glare.
“The Principia? She found my Principia?” he asked, carefully using the pronunciation that Miss Abigail had taught him six years ago.
Willie looked around to make sure no one could hear him. “She said all the crazy writin’ and the lines and circles and numbers was all the work of the devil!”
“Man, what you been doin’?” Black Pete cried.
“Big Momma don’t know… What did she do with my book?” Simmie snatched Willie by the collar. “What did she do with my book?”
“Sh-she burned it,” Willie said meekly.
“Good thang!” Black Pete said.
“Shut up, Pete!” Simmie bellowed, and Black Pete cowered away. “She burned my book?” He imagined his prize possession aflame. One of the most important things he owned, the thing that sparked his dream of starting a new life. He felt a tightening in his gut.
“She said it was the work of the devil and that it was goin’ to ruin yo’ soul. She burned it to protect you, to keep you and all the rest of us from goin’ to hell!”
“She burned my book?” Simmie roared as he raised a fist.
“Don’t hit me! I didn’t do it!” Willie cried. “Big Momma did!”
Simmie released Willie and tried to calm himself. His Principia! He had had that book since he was twelve years old when he rescued it from the trash behind the town library. So what if the pages were tattered and the cover was torn off? It was his book! He had begged Miss Abigail, the teacher at the white children’s school, to teach him to read, just so he could discover what that book was all about. After he’d breezed his way through all of the readers and textbooks she had, he showed her his Principia. She’d looked at it and dismissed it as nonsense, which Simmie found to be odd since she had heard of it and even knew the correct pronunciation of the title. It turned out that she had never actually seen a copy of it before, and young Simmie was able to understand it all better than she could. And the knowledge! The wisdom! Written two hundred years ago by Sir Isaac Newton, a genius of a man! It was as valuable to Simmie as his Bible. For over six years he coveted that book, and now Big Momma, in her senile ignorance, had destroyed it. Fortunately, Simmie had it all memorized.
“What about the rest of my stuff?” Simmie growled.
“I-I don’t know. All I saw was the book.” Willie kept out of reach. “Simmie?”
“Don’t talk to me,” Simmie grumbled, and walked ahead. Was it Big Momma’s fault that she did not understand? She was only doing what she thought was best for her family. After all, it was she who had had the courage to rescue baby Simmie when his parents were sold off and he was left to die because he was sickly and of no practical value. When he got older, she’d also recognized that there was something special about him, that he was a lot smarter than all the other kids, black or white. She had taught him to hide his smarts, lest he offend some white person.
He looked over his shoulder and noticed that Black Pete had fallen behind, walking slowly with a blank expression on his face. “Come here, Pete.”
Obediently, Black Pete ran up to Simmie. “What you want?”
Simmie sighed. “Sorry I hollered at you.”
“That’s okay. Everybody does.” Black Pete grinned.
Simmie sadly looked at Black Pete. He used to have good sense, just like everybody else, until he’d accidentally been hit on the head with a shovel a year ago. The good Lord saw fit to give Simmie a good mind, and he took Black Pete’s mind away from him.
“I won’t holler at you again, Pete.”
Simmie wondered if Black Pete realized that he was slow in the head, or if the Lord had been kind enough to hide that fact from him. Well, there was nothing Simmie could do now except try to look out for him. He gave Black Pete a pat on the back of the head and walked on. Soon he was again lost in thought. Recalling details from his beloved Principia made dealing with this terrible world a little less painful.
“If bodies, any how moved among themselves, are urged in the direction of parallel lines by equal accelerative forces, they will all continue to move among themselves, after the same manner as if they had been urged by no such forces.”
It was twilight when they entered the little town with its dilapidated wooden buildings and dirt path. Only a couple of men were sitting on the porch of the saloon on the side of the road. The General Store—an old house of gray weathered wood—sat in the middle of it all. The upstairs windows were boarded up. A couple of rocking chairs sat on the porch, and rusty metal signs advertising cigarettes, booze, and soft drinks hung on the outside. They walked up the steps and the proprietor, a short, wrinkly old white man with a scraggly beard, came out and met them at the door.
“You know you boys can’t come in here,” Old Ben said, chewing on a corncob pipe.
“We just want some cold pop,” Willie said.
“Yes, suh,” Willie bowed.
“Okay, three grape pops. Wait here.” Old Ben disappeared inside.
“I don’t likes grape,” Black Pete protested. “I likes orange!”
“White man think all we like is grape pop, then grape pop is what you gets,” Willie admonished.
“Okay, Willie,” Black Pete said.
Simmie shook his head and sighed when Black Pete and Willie performed like cowering coons in front of this dim-witted old white man. It was going to be up to Simmie to get out of this stinking hole and make something of himself so black people could hold their heads high in the future. Well, his descendants, at least.
Old Ben came back out with three sweaty bottles of purple liquid. “That’ll be six cents.”
“The sign says a penny a bottle,” Simmie said flatly.
“Six cents!” Old Ben repeated.
Simmie gave the old man six pennies. It took a moment for Old Ben to count the money.
“All right, now you boys go ’round back to drink that, ya hear?”
“Yes, suh.” Willie bowed again.
Old Ben went back inside while Willie and Black Pete made their way behind the store. Simmie gazed at the darkening sky. While other men dreamed of freedom or wealth, Simmie dreamed of stars and planets, and of time and space, and how it all worked according to Mr. Newton. The full moon was high, surrounded by a sprinkling of tiny lights. One very bright star was just a little to the left, the brightest one in the sky. Simmie knew it wasn’t a star. It was the planet Venus, orbiting around the sun, just like Earth.
“That Mercury and Venus revolve about the sun is evident from their moon-like appearances. When they shine out with a full face, they are, in respect of us, beyond or above the sun; when they appear half full, they are about the same height on one side or other of the sun; when horned, they are below or between us and the sun; and they are sometimes, when directly under, like spots traversing the sun’s disk.”
He took a sip from his bottle. Amazing—the planets, the Earth, all revolving around the sun, thanks to an almost-magical thing called gravity.
“The planets move in ellipses which have their common focus in the centre of the sun; and, by radii drawn to that centre…”
“Boy! What the hell you think you doin’?”
“Uh… what?” Simmie looked down to see the Old Ben’s scowling face.
“I told you to drink that ’round back! You think you can do what you want to around here, nigger?” He slapped the bottle from Simmie’s hand, and it rolled down the dirt road, leaving a trail of foamy liquid.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Simmie, a giant of a man compared to Old Ben, backed away. “I’ll just leave, all right?”
“What’s goin’ on over there, Ben?” A young white man stepped out of the saloon and crossed the road.
“He told me to drink my pop around back, but I forgot. I started drinking it here. I made a mistake. I’m sorry!” Simmie said as he glanced over at Willie and Black Pete, who were peeking around the corner of the building. Terror shone in their eyes.
“Ain’t nobody talkin’ to you, boy! You shut your nigger mouth,” the man said.
“He disrespected me, Jed,” Old Ben said. “Was gonna hit me, too!”
“That’s not true!” Simmie protested.
“You callin’ Ol’ Ben a liar?” Jed growled. “You just one smart-assed nigger, ain’t cha? I’m just gonna have to teach you a lesson!” Jed unbuckled his belt and yanked it out from his belt loops. “Now you take yo’ pants down, and I’m gonna give you a whippin’ you ain’t never gonna forget.”
Simmie’s head was spinning. Willie and Black Pete were long gone. Other white men looked out of windows and peeked out of doorways. Just accept the humiliation and take the whipping, he reasoned, but he knew it would not end there. Simmie was bigger and stronger than Jed, and could probably handle two or even three men like him, but he knew if he was not very careful, he would be hanging from a tree somewhere in the woods before the night was over. He needed to think fast.
“I said take your pants down, boy!” Jed reached over and pulled at Simmie’s pants.
“To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction…”
Simmie planted a huge fist in Jed’s face. Blood splattered. Jed fell to the ground and lay motionless.
Old Ben shrieked, “You killed him! You murderin’ nigger! You done killed Jed!”
“Just knocked him out,” Simmie said quietly. “He’ll be okay.”
“He killed him! Damned nigger done killed Jed!” Old Ben yelled.
Several men were now on the street, trying to make out what going on in the moonlight. Old Ben was bent over Jed, crying and screaming. Simmie took off and ran.
This was every Negro man’s worst nightmare and one Simmie had lived with every day. It was damned near impossible for a black man to not get into trouble. It had been twenty-three years since the war had ended, and his people were supposed to be free. But the South was still a very dangerous place for a black man. He had managed to avoid problems up until now, staying to himself, and prudently taking the insults and abuse when they came. Another month or so and he would have been free of all this.
Simmie ran as hard as he could, his legs and arms aching from a full day of backbreaking work. For several hours, he hid in the dark woods, concealing himself in trees and bushes playing hide-and-seek with the lynch mobs. Around midnight, he found himself on a ridge, overlooking the shantytown that he had called home. Some white men were going door to door, bursting into the ramshackle houses, sometimes dragging some poor soul outside, beating the hell out of him, and carrying him off. Simmie watched, torn between reveling in the good fortune of having escaped the violence and feeling badly for those who had not. Later, long after the last of the posse was gone, he made his way home.
“Oh, Lord, it’s Simmie.” Willie looked terrified when he cracked open the door.
“Give him his mess and send him off,” Big Momma said. She was a slight, wrinkled, dark-skinned old woman in a dingy white dress. Simmie saw her sitting in the corner, waving her frail fist in the air. “Don’t let that heathen back in this house!”
Willie pushed a burlap sack through the half-open door. “You know they got poor ol’ Black Pete. They beat him somethin’ awful and took him. Probably hangin’ from some tree branch by now.”
“They got Black Pete?” Simmie said as he swallowed a lump in his throat. He looked in the bag, which contained all the clothes he had in the world—his Bible, his pencil, his notebook, and a small box of matches.
“Poor boy dead ’cause a you!” Big Momma called from inside. “Go on before ya get us all kilt!”
“Bye, Simmie,” Willie said sheepishly as he closed the door.
Simmie felt guilty about Black Pete, but there was nothing he could do for him; he was with the Lord now.
Maybe Black Pete was the lucky one.
Simmie went around to the back of the house and paced fifty feet into the woods. Using one of the half-dozen matches, he located the spot in the dirt, dug up the old whiskey bottle that contained his savings, and broke it against a rock. When he added his wages for the week, the total amounted to $63.37, more than enough to get him where he wanted to go. Twenty minutes later, he was deep in the woods again, guided by the light of the full moon. His plan was to get to the train yard, hop a freight, and when he was far enough away, purchase a proper train ticket.
Cold and exhausted after eleven hours of slinging a hammer and moving heavy boulders, he was in no condition to be on the run. He wanted to stop, start a fire, warm up, and rest for a few minutes. He heard barking in the distance. Dogs! Damn! They never give up! He risked lighting a match for a second to check his compass, then headed east.
When he reached the stream, he stripped naked and tossed his clothes as high as he could into the trees. He washed himself in the chilly water and put on a clean shirt and pants from his bag. He soaked his shoes before putting them back on. It was going to be uncomfortable, but he hoped it would throw the dogs off his scent.
On the other side of the stream, he walked another half-mile or so, where he found a large tree with gigantic branches that would make a nice cradle. He climbed up and made himself as comfortable as possible, nearly twenty feet above the ground. Damp and shivering, he used his bag as a pillow and settled in for the night, not daring to sleep for fear he would either not hear the approach of a lynch mob or fall out of the tree.
“The force of gravity, considered downward from the surface of the planets decreases nearly in the proportion of the distances from their centres. If the matter of the planet were of an uniform density, this Proposition would be accurately true.”
Stars winked in and out as leaves above fluttered in the wind. How far away could those stars be? he thought. Is there even a number that can describe the distance? The absolute wonder of God’s creation, so beautiful and so precise. Beyond belief, but not beyond understanding. From the planets and stars in the sky to the leaves on the trees, men can understand. Simmie felt that he could understand if he had had the chance to read more and to learn. There had to be so much more than in the Principia. How much more knowledge had been acquired in the two centuries since Mr. Newton?
Perhaps he would still get that chance if he could get the hell out of Jackson alive. So long had he saved his money and planned. Just a few more days and he would have left anyway. If only he had not been forced to punch that white man. Maybe he should have just swallowed his pride this time and bowed and shuffled like a good nigger. If only he had gone around the back of the store with Willie and Black Pete. If only he had just gone straight home after work like he usually did. He’d be sleeping in his warm bed now instead of perched—cowering, wet, and cold—in a tree. Black Pete would be still alive, too.
“Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to anything external, and by another name is called duration…”
What if he could go back? Back to the time before the encounter with Old Ben and Jed? The choice to go for the fateful bottle of pop was like a fork in the road. That simple choice had completely changed the course of his life. Was it possible to go back to that fork? Was there some way he could go back, knowing which choice was best, and forgo the cold drink for the safety of home? Was that somehow possible?
Off in the distance, he heard a dog howling. Simmie lay quietly as the baying got louder. They could not have possibly followed him here, could they?
“Come on, Peps.” Simmie heard a man talking to his hound. “I know you smell him! You got him, don’t ya?”
Simmie trembled when the dog ran up to his tree, barking wildly.
“Yeah! You got him, Peps!” The man yanked the dog back and yelled up to the tree, “You up there, nigger? Might as well come on down if you is!”
Simmie held his breath. Was this it? Was this the end?
“All right, boy! I gave ya a chance. I get just as much for ya dead as alive.”
Simmie heard him cock the rifle. He closed his eyes and tensed his muscles. “Lord, thy will be done,” he prayed to himself, waiting for the sting of the bullet.
There was a rustle in the tree above. Something fell on Simmie’s chest. Startled, he brushed it off and heard it fall to the ground.
“The hell is this? Peps, it’s a damned squirrel! You stupid, biscuit-eatin’ bitch! We ain’t out to get no damn squirrels!”
Peps went wild, yelping and trying to climb the tree.
“Get back here, ya good for nothin’.” The dog squealed as the man yanked him by the rope around its neck. “Gonna pay a lot of money for that nigger’s ass, and you goddamn chasin’ squirrels? Come on!”
The yelling and barking grew softer as Simmie watched the bouncing light of the man’s lantern disappear into the woods. The gnarled tree branches held him securely as he glanced up at the starry night one last time before falling asleep.