I took another step forward and went down another step. My eyes still told me I was standing on the floor in the pantry of Al’s Diner, but I was standing straight and the top of my head no longer scraped the roof of the pantry. Which was of course impossible. My stomach lurched unhappily in response to my sensory confusion, and I could feel the egg salad sandwich and the piece of apple pie I’d eaten for lunch preparing to push the ejector button.
From behind me — yet a little distant, as if he were standing fifteen yards away instead of only five feet — Al said, “Close your eyes, buddy, it’s easier that way.”
When I did it, the sensory confusion disappeared at once. It was like uncrossing your eyes. Or putting on the special glasses in a 3-D movie, that might be closer. I moved my right foot and went down another step. It was steps; with my vision shut off, my body had no doubt about that.
“Two more, then open em,” Al said. He sounded farther away than ever. At the other end of the diner instead of standing in the pantry door.
I went down with my left foot. Went down with my right foot again, and all at once there was a pop inside my head, exactly like the kind you hear when you’re in an airplane and the pressure changes suddenly. The dark field inside my eyelids turned red, and there was warmth on my skin. It was sunlight. No question about it. And that faint sulphurous smell had grown thicker, moving up the olfactory scale from barely there to actively unpleasant. There was no question about that, either.
I opened my eyes.
I was no longer in the pantry. I was no longer in Al’s Diner, either. Although there was no door from the pantry to the outside world, I was outside. I was in the courtyard. But it was no longer brick, and there were no outlet stores surrounding it. I was standing on crumbling, dirty cement. Several huge metal receptacles stood against the blank white wall where Your Maine Snuggery should have been. They were piled high with something and covered with sail-size sheets of rough brown burlap cloth.
I turned around to look at the big silver trailer which housed Al’s Diner, but the diner was gone.
Where it should have been was the vast Dickensian bulk of Worumbo Mills and Weaving, and it was in full operation. I could hear the thunder of the dyers and dryers, the shat-HOOSH, shat-HOOSH of the huge weaving flats that had once filled the second floor (I had seen pictures of these machines, tended by women who wore kerchiefs and coveralls, in the tiny Lisbon Historical Society building on upper Main Street). Whitish-gray smoke poured from three tall stacks that had come down during a big windstorm in the eighties.
I was standing beside a large, green-painted cube of a building — the drying shed, I assumed. It filled half the courtyard and rose to a height of about twenty feet. I had come down a flight of stairs, but now there were no stairs. No way back. I felt a surge of panic.
“Jake?” It was Al’s voice, but very faint. It seemed to arrive in my ears by a mere trick of acoustics, like a voice winding for miles down a long, narrow canyon. “You can come back the same way you got there. Feel for the steps.”
I lifted my left foot, put it down, and felt a step. My panic eased.
“Go on.” Faint. A voice seemingly powered by its own echoes. “Look around a little, then come back.”
I didn’t go anywhere at first, just stood still, wiping my mouth with the palm of my hand. My eyes felt like they were bugging out of their sockets. My scalp and a narrow strip of skin all the way down the middle of my back was crawling. I was scared — almost terrified — but balancing that off and keeping panic at bay (for the moment) was a powerful curiosity. I could see my shadow on the concrete, as clear as something cut from black cloth. I could see flakes of rust on the chain that closed the drying shed off from the rest of the courtyard. I could smell the powerful effluent pouring from the triple stacks, strong enough to make my eyes sting. An EPA inspector would have taken one sniff of that shit and shut the whole operation down in a New England minute. Except. . I didn’t think there were any EPA inspectors in the vicinity. I wasn’t even sure the EPA had been invented yet. I knew where I was; Lisbon Falls, Maine, deep in the heart of Androscoggin County.
The real question was when I was.
A sign I couldn’t read hung from the chain — the message was facing the wrong way. I started toward it, then turned around. I closed my eyes and shuffled forward, reminding myself to take baby steps. When my left foot clunked against the bottom step that went back up to the pantry of Al’s Diner (or so I devoutly hoped), I felt in my back pocket and brought out a folded sheet of paper: my exalted department head’s “Have a nice summer and don’t forget the July in-service day” memo. I briefly wondered how he’d feel about Jake Epping teaching a six-week block called The Literature of Time Travel next year. Then I tore a strip from the top, crumpled it, and dropped it on the first step of the invisible stairway. It landed on the ground, of course, but either way it marked the spot. It was a warm, still afternoon and I didn’t think it would blow away, but I found a little chunk of concrete and used it as a paperweight, just to be sure. It landed on the step, but it also landed on the scrap of memo. Because there was no step. A snatch of some old pop song drifted through my head: First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.
Look around a little, Al had said, and I decided that was what I’d do. I figured if I hadn’t lost my mind already, I was probably going to be okay for awhile longer. Unless I saw a parade of pink elephants or a UFO hovering over John Crafts Auto, that was. I tried to tell myself this wasn’t happening, couldn’t be happening, but it wouldn’t wash. Philosophers and psychologists may argue over what’s real and what isn’t, but most of us living ordinary lives know and accept the texture of the world around us. This was happening. All else aside, it was too goddam stinky to be a hallucination.
I walked to the chain, which hung at thigh level, and ducked beneath it. Stenciled in black paint on the other side was NO ADMITTANCE BEYOND THIS POINT UNTIL SEWER PIPE IS REPAIRED . I looked back again, saw no indication that repairs were in the immediate offing, walked around the corner of the drying shed, and almost stumbled over the man sunning himself there. Not that he could expect to get much of a tan. He was wearing an old black overcoat that puddled around him like an amorphous shadow. There were dried crackles of snot on both sleeves. The body inside the coat was scrawny to the point of emaciation. His iron-gray hair hung in snaggles around his beard-scruffy cheeks. He was a wino if ever a wino there was.
Cocked back on his head was a filthy fedora that looked straight out of a 1950s film noir, the kind where all the women have big bazonkas and all the men talk fast around the cigarettes stuck in the corners of their mouths. And yep, poking up from the fedora’s hatband, like an old-fashioned reporter’s press pass, was a yellow card. Once it had probably been a bright yellow, but much handling by grimy fingers had turned it bleary.
When my shadow fell across his lap, the Yellow Card Man turned and surveyed me with bleary eyes.
“Who the fuck’re you?” he asked, only it came out Hoo-a fuck-a you?
Al hadn’t given me detailed instructions on how to answer questions, so I said what seemed safest. “None of your fucking business.”
“Well fuck you, too.”
“Fine,” I said. “We are in accord.”
“Have a nice day.” I started toward the gate, which stood open on a steel track. Beyond it, to the left, was a parking lot that had never been there before. It was full of cars, most of them battered and all of them old enough to belong in a car museum. There were Buicks with portholes and Fords with torpedo noses. Those belong to actual millworkers, I thought. Actual millworkers who are inside now, working for hourly wages.
“I got a yellow card from the greenfront,” the wino said. He sounded both truculent and troubled. “So gimme a buck because today’s double-money day.”
I held the fifty-cent piece out to him. Feeling like an actor who only has one line in the play, I said: “I can’t spare a buck, but here’s half a rock.”
Then you give it to him, Al had said, but I didn’t need to. The Yellow Card Man snatched it from me and held it close to his face. For a moment I thought he was actually going to bite into it, but he just closed his long-fingered hand around it in a fist, making it disappear. He peered at me again, his face almost comic with distrust.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“I’ll be damned if I know,” I said, and turned back to the gate. I expected him to hurl more questions after me, but there was only silence. I went out through the gate.
The newest car in the lot was a Plymouth Fury from — I think — the mid-or late fifties. The plate on it looked like an impossibly antique version of the one on the back of my Subaru; that plate came, at my ex-wife’s request, with a pink breast cancer ribbon. The one I was looking at now did say VACATIONLAND, but it was orange instead of white. As in most states, Maine plates now come with letters — the one on my Subaru is 23383 IY — but the one on the back of the almost-new white-over-red Fury was 90-811. No letters.
I touched the trunk. It was hard and warm from the sun. It was real.
Cross the tracks and you’ll be at the intersection of Main and Lisbon. After that, buddy, the world is yours.
There were no railroad tracks passing in front of the old mill — not in my time, there weren’t — but they were here, all right. Not just leftover artifacts, either. They were polished, gleaming. And somewhere in the distance I could hear the wuff-chuff of an actual train. When was the last time trains had passed through Lisbon Falls? Probably not since the mill closed and U.S. Gypsum (known to the locals as U.S. Gyp ’Em) was running round the clock.
Except it is running round the clock, I thought. I’d bet money on it. And so is the mill. Because this is no longer the second decade of the twenty-first century.
I had started walking again without even realizing it — walking like a man in a dream. Now I stood on the corner of Main Street and Route 196, also known as the Old Lewiston Road. Only now there was nothing old about it. And diagonally across the intersection, on the opposite corner—
It was the Kennebec Fruit Company, which was certainly a grandiose name for a store that had been tottering on the edge of oblivion — or so it seemed to me — for the ten years I’d been teaching at LHS. Its unlikely raison d’être and only means of survival was Moxie, that weirdest of soft drinks. The proprietor of the Fruit Company, an elderly sweet-natured man named Frank Anicetti, had once told me the world’s population divided naturally (and probably by genetic inheritance) into two groups: the tiny but blessed elect who prized Moxie above all other potables. . and everybody else. Frank called everybody else “the unfortunately handicapped majority.”
The Kennebec Fruit Company of my time was a faded yellow-and-green box with a dirty show window barren of goods. . unless the cat that sometimes sleeps there is for sale. The roof is swaybacked from many snowy winters. There’s little on offer inside except for Moxie souvenirs: bright orange tee-shirts reading I’VE GOT MOXIE! bright orange hats, vintage calendars, tin signs that looked vintage but were probably made last year in China. For most of the year the place is devoid of customers, most of the shelves denuded of goods. . although you can still get a few sugary snack foods or a bag of potato chips (if you like the salt-and-vinegar kind, that is). The soft-drink cooler is stocked with nothing but Moxie. The beer cooler is empty.
Each July, Lisbon Falls hosts the Maine Moxie Festival. There are bands, fireworks, and a parade featuring — I swear this is true — Moxie floats and local beauty queens dressed in Moxie-colored tank bathing suits, which means an orange so bright it can cause retinal burns. The parade marshal is always dressed as the Moxie Doc, which means a white coat, a stethoscope, and one of those funky mirrors on a headband. Two years ago the marshal was LHS principal Stella Langley, and she’ll never live it down.
During the festival, the Kennebec Fruit Company comes alive and does excellent business, mostly provided by bemused tourists on their way to the western Maine resort areas. The rest of the year it is little more than a husk haunted by the faint odor of Moxie, a smell that has always reminded me — probably because I belong to the unfortunately handicapped majority — of Musterole, the fabulously stinky stuff my mother insisted on rubbing into my throat and chest when I had a cold.
What I was looking at now from the far side of the Old Lewiston Road was a thriving business in the prime of life. The sign hung over the door (FRESH UP WITH 7-UP on top, WELCOME TO THE KENNEBEC FRUIT CO. below) was bright enough to throw arrows of sun at my eyes. The paint was fresh, the roof unbowed by the weather. People were going in and coming out. And in the show window, instead of a cat. .
Oranges, by God. The Kennebec Fruit Company once sold actual fruit. Who knew?
I started across the street, then pulled back as an inter-city bus snored toward me. The route sign above the divided windshield read LEWISTON EXPRESS. When the bus braked to a stop at the railroad crossing, I saw that most of the passengers were smoking. The atmosphere in there must have been roughly akin to the atmosphere of Saturn.
Once the bus had gone on its way (leaving behind a smell of half-cooked diesel to mix with the rotten-egg stench belching from the Worumbo’s stacks), I crossed the street, wondering briefly what would happen if I were hit by a car. Would I blink out of existence? Wake up lying on the floor of Al’s pantry? Probably neither. Probably I would just die here, in a past for which a lot of people probably felt nostalgic. Possibly because they had forgotten how bad the past smelled, or because they had never considered that aspect of the Nifty Fifties in the first place.
A kid was standing outside the Fruit Company with one black-booted foot cocked back against the wood siding. The collar of his shirt was turned up at the nape of his neck, and his hair was combed in a style I recognized (from old movies, mostly) as Early Elvis. Unlike the boys I was used to seeing in my classes, he sported no goatee, not even a flavor patch below the chin. I realized that in the world I was now visiting (I hoped I was only visiting), he’d be kicked out of LHS for showing up with even a single strand of facial hair. Instantly.
I nodded to him. James Dean nodded back and said, “Hi-ho, Daddy-O.”
I went inside. A bell jingled above the door. Instead of dust and gently decaying wood, I smelled oranges, apples, coffee, and fragrant tobacco. To my right was a rack of comic books with their covers torn off—Archie, Batman, Captain Marvel, Plastic Man, Tales from the Crypt. The hand-printed sign above this trove, which would have sent any eBay aficionado into paroxysms, read COMIX 5¢ EA THREE FOR 10¢ NINE FOR A QUARTER PLEASE DON’T HANDLE UNLESS YOU INTEND TO BUY.
On the left was a rack of newspapers. No New York Times, but there were copies of the Portland Press Herald and one leftover Boston Globe. The Globe ’s headline trumpeted, DULLES HINTS CONCESSIONS IF RED CHINA RENOUNCES USE OF FORCE IN FORMOSA . The dates on both were Tuesday, September 9, 1958.
I took the Globe, which sold for eight cents, and walked toward a marble-topped soda fountain that did not exist in my time. Standing behind it was Frank Anicetti. It was him all right, right down to the distinguished wings of gray above his ears. Only this version — call him Frank 1.0—was thin instead of plump, and wearing rimless bifocals. He was also taller. Feeling like a stranger in my own body, I slid onto one of the stools.
He nodded at the paper. “That going to do you, or can I get you something from the fountain?”
“Anything cold that’s not Moxie,” I heard myself say.
Frank 1.0 smiled at that. “Don’t carry it, son. How about a root beer instead?”
“Sounds good.” And it did. My throat was dry and my head was hot. I felt like I was running a fever.
“Five or ten?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Five-or ten-cent beer?” He said it the Maine way: beeyah.
“Oh. Ten, I guess.”
“Well, I guess you guess right.” He opened an ice cream freezer and removed a frosty mug roughly the size of a lemonade pitcher. He filled it from a tap and I could smell the root beer, rich and strong. He scraped the foam off the top with the handle of a wooden spoon, then filled it all the way to the top and set it down on the counter. “There you go. That and the paper’s eighteen cents. Plus a penny for the governor.”
I handed over one of Al’s vintage dollars, and Frank 1.0 made change.
I sipped through the foam on top, and was amazed. It was. . full. Tasty all the way through. I don’t know how to express it any better than that. This fifty-years-gone world smelled worse than I ever would have expected, but it tasted a whole hell of a lot better.
“This is wonderful,” I said.
“Ayuh? Glad you like it. Not from around here, are you?”
“Wisconsin,” I said. Not entirely a lie; my family lived in Milwaukee until I was eleven, when my father got a job teaching English at the University of Southern Maine. I’d been knocking around the state ever since.
“Well, you picked the right time to come,” Anicetti said. “Most of the summer people are gone, and as soon as that happens, prices go down. What you’re drinkin, for example. After Labor Day, a ten-cent root beer only costs a dime.”
The bell over the door jangled; the floorboards creaked. It was a companionable creak. The last time I’d ventured into the Kennebec Fruit, hoping for a roll of Tums (I was disappointed), they had groaned.
A boy who might have been seventeen slipped behind the counter. His dark hair was cropped close, not quite a crewcut. His resemblance to the man who had served me was unmistakable, and I realized that this was my Frank Anicetti. The guy who had lopped the head of foam off my root beer was his father. Frank 2.0 didn’t give me so much as a glance; to him I was just another customer.
“Titus has got the truck up on the lift,” he told his dad. “Says it’ll be ready by five.”
“Well, that’s good,” Anicetti Senior said, and lit a cigarette. For the first time I noticed the marble top of the soda fountain was lined with small ceramic ashtrays. Written on the sides was WINSTON TASTES GOOD LIKE A CIGARETTE SHOULD! He looked back at me and said, “You want a scoop of vanilla in your beer? On the house. We like to treat tourists right, especially when they turn up late.”
“Thanks, but this is fine,” I said, and it was. Any more sweetness and I thought my head would explode. And it was strong —like drinking carbonated espresso.
The kid gave me a grin that was as sweet as the stuff in the frosted mug — there was none of the amused disdain I’d felt emanating from the Elvis wannabe outside. “We read a story in school,” he said, “where the locals eat the tourists if they show up after the season’s over.”
“Frankie, that’s a hell of a thing to tell a visitor,” Mr. Anicetti said. But he was smiling when he said it.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’ve taught that story myself. Shirley Jackson, right? ‘The Summer People.’”
“That’s the one,” Frank agreed. “I didn’t really get it, but I liked it.”
I took another pull on my root beer, and when I set it down (it made a satisfyingly thick chunk on the marble counter), I wasn’t exactly surprised to see it was almost gone. I could get addicted to these, I thought. It beats the living shit out of Moxie.
The elder Anicetti exhaled a plume of smoke toward the ceiling, where an overhead paddle fan pulled it into lazy blue rafters. “Do you teach out in Wisconsin, Mr. — ?”
“Epping,” I said. I was too caught by surprise to even think of giving a fake name. “I do, actually. But this is my sabbatical year.”
“That means he’s taking a year off,” Frank said.
“I know what it means,” Anicetti said. He was trying to sound irritated and doing a bad job of it. I decided I liked these two as much as I liked the root beer. I even liked the aspiring teenage hood outside, if only because he didn’t know he was already a cliché. There was a sense of safety here, a sense of — I don’t know — preordination. It was surely false, this world was as dangerous as any other, but I possessed one piece of knowledge I would before this afternoon have believed was reserved only for God: I knew that the smiling boy who had enjoyed the Shirley Jackson story (even though he didn’t “get it”) was going to live through that day and over fifty years of days to come. He wasn’t going to be killed in a car crash, have a heart attack, or contract lung cancer from breathing his father’s secondhand smoke. Frank Anicetti was good to go.
I glanced at the clock on the wall (START YOUR DAY WITH A SMILE, the face said, DRINK CHEER-UP COFFEE). It read 12:22. That was nothing to me, but I pretended to be startled. I drank off the rest of my beeyah and stood up. “Got to get moving if I’m going to meet my friends in Castle Rock on time.”
“Well, take it easy on Route 117,” Anicetti said. “That road’s a bugger.” It came out buggah. I hadn’t heard such a thick Maine accent in years. Then I realized that was literally true, and I almost laughed out loud.
“I will,” I said. “Thanks. And son? About that Shirley Jackson story.”
“Yes, sir?” Sir, yet. And nothing sarcastic about it. I was deciding that 1958 had been a pretty good year. Aside from the stench of the mill and the cigarette smoke, that was.
“There’s nothing to get.”
“No? That’s not what Mr. Marchant says.”
“With all due respect to Mr. Marchant, you tell him Jake Epping says that sometimes a cigar is just a smoke and a story’s just a story.”
He laughed. “I will! Period three tomorrow morning!”
“Good.” I nodded to the father, wishing I could tell him that, thanks to Moxie (which he didn’t carry. . yet), his business was going to be standing on the corner of Main Street and the Old Lewiston Road long after he was gone. “Thanks for the root beer.”
“Come back anytime, son. I’m thinking about lowering the price on the large.”
“To a dime?”
He grinned. Like his son’s, it was easy and open. “Now you’re cooking with gas.”
The bell jingled. Three ladies came in. No slacks; they wore dresses with hemlines that dropped halfway down their shins. And hats! Two with little fluffs of white veil. They began rummaging through the open crates of fruit, looking for perfection. I started away from the soda fountain, then had a thought and turned back.
“Can you tell me what a greenfront is?”
The father and the son exchanged an amused glance that made me think of an old joke. Tourist from Chicago driving a fancy sportscar pulls up to a farmhouse way out in the country. Old farmer’s sitting on the porch, smoking a corncob pipe. Tourist leans out of his Jaguar and asks, “Say, oldtimer, can you tell me how to get to East Machias?” Old farmer puffs thoughtfully on his pipe a time or two, then says, “Don’tcha move a goddam inch.”
“You really are an out-of-stater, aren’t you?” Frank asked. His accent wasn’t as thick as his father’s. Probably watches more TV, I thought. There’s nothing like TV when it comes to eroding a regional accent.
“I am,” I said.
“That’s funny, because I could swear I hear a little Yankee twang.”
“It’s a Yooper thing,” I said. “You know, the Upper Peninsula?” Except — dang! — the UP was Michigan.
But neither of them seemed to realize it. In fact young Frank turned away and started doing dishes. By hand, I noticed.
“The greenfront’s the liquor store,” Anicetti said. “Right across the street, if you’re wanting to pick up a pint of something.”
“I think the root beer’s good enough for me,” I said. “I was just wondering. Have a nice day.”
“You too, my friend. Come back and see us.”
I passed the fruit-examining trio, murmuring “Ladies” as I went by. And wishing I had a hat to tip. A fedora, maybe.
Like the ones you see in the old movies.
The aspiring hoodlum had left his post, and I thought about walking up Main Street to see what else had changed, but only for a second. No sense pressing my luck. Suppose someone asked about my clothes? I thought my sport coat and slacks looked more or less all right, but did I know that for sure? And then there was my hair, which touched my collar. In my own time that would be considered perfectly okay for a high school teacher — conservative, even — but it might garner glances in a decade where shaving the back of the neck was considered a normal part of the barbering service and sideburns were reserved for rockabilly dudes like the one who had called me Daddy-O. Of course I could say I was a tourist, that all men wore their hair a little long in Wisconsin, it was quite the coming thing, but hair and clothes — that feeling of standing out, like some space alien in an imperfectly assumed human disguise — was only part of it.
Mostly I was just plain freaked. Not mentally tottering, I think a human mind that’s moderately well-adjusted can absorb a lot of strangeness before it actually totters, but freaked, yes. I kept thinking about the ladies in their long dresses and hats, ladies who would be embarrassed to show so much as the edge of a bra strap in public. And the taste of that root beer. How full it had been.
Directly across the street was a modest storefront with MAINE STATE LIQUOR STORE printed in raised letters over the small show window. And yes, the façade was a light green. Inside I could just make out my pal from the drying shed. His long black coat hung from his coathanger shoulders; he had taken off his hat and his hair stood out around his head like that of a cartoon nebbish who has just inserted Finger A in Electric Socket B. He was gesticulating at the clerk with both hands, and I could see his precious yellow card in one. I felt certain that Al Templeton’s half a rock was in the other. The clerk, who was wearing a short white tunic that looked quite a bit like the one the Moxie Doc wore in the annual parade, looked singularly unimpressed.
I walked to the corner, waited on traffic, and crossed back to the Worumbo side of the Old Lewiston Road. A couple of men were pushing a dolly loaded with bales of cloth across the courtyard, smoking and laughing. I wondered if they had any idea what the combination of cigarette smoke and mill pollution was doing to their innards, and supposed not. Probably that was a blessing, although it was more a question for a philosophy teacher than for a guy who earned his daily bread exposing sixteen-year-olds to the wonders of Shakespeare, Steinbeck, and Shirley Jackson.
When they had entered the mill, rolling their dolly between the rusty metal jaws of doors three stories high, I crossed back to the chain with the NO ADMITTANCE BEYOND THIS POINT sign hanging from it. I told myself not to walk too fast, and not to peer all around me — not to do anything that would attract attention — but it was hard. Now that I was almost back to where I came in, the urge to hurry was almost irresistible. My mouth was dry, and the big root beer I’d drunk roiled in my stomach. What if I couldn’t get back? What if the marker I’d dropped was gone? What if it was still there, but the stairs weren’t?
Easy, I told myself. Easy.
I couldn’t resist one quick survey before ducking under the chain, but the courtyard was entirely mine. Somewhere distant, like a sound heard in a dream, I could again hear that low diesel wuff-chuff. It called to mind another line from another song: This train has got the disappearing railroad blues .
I walked down the green flank of the drying shed, heart beating hard and high up in my chest. The torn scrap of paper with the chunk of concrete on top of it was still there; so far so good. I kicked at it gently, thinking Please God let this work, please God let me get back.
The toe of my shoe kicked the chunk of concrete — I saw it go skittering away — but it also thumped to a dead stop against the step. Those things were mutually exclusive, but they both happened. I took one more look around, even though no one in the courtyard could see me in this narrow lane unless they happened to be passing directly in front of it at one end or the other. No one was.
I went up one step. My foot could feel it, even though my eyes told me I was still standing on the cracked paving of the courtyard. The root beer took another warning lurch in my stomach. I closed my eyes and that was a little better. I took the second step, then the third. They were shallow, those steps. When I took the fourth one, the summer heat disappeared from the back of my neck and the dark behind my eyelids became deeper. I tried to take the fifth step, only there was no fifth step. I bumped my head on the low pantry ceiling instead. A hand grasped my forearm and I almost screamed.
“Relax,” Al said. “Relax, Jake. You’re back.”
He offered me a cup of coffee, but I shook my head. My stomach was still sudsing. He poured himself one, and we went back to the booth where we had begun this madman’s journey. My wallet, cell phone, and money were piled in the middle of the table. Al sat down with a gasp of pain and relief. He looked a little less drawn and a little more relaxed.
“So,” he said. “You went and you came back. What do you think?”
“Al, I don’t know what to think. I’m rocked right down to my foundations. You found this by accident?”
“Totally. Less than a month after I got myself set up here. I must have still had Pine Street dust on the heels of my shoes. The first time, I actually fell down those stairs, like Alice into the rabbit-hole. I thought I’d gone insane.”
I could imagine. I’d had at least some preparation, poor though it had been. And really, was there any adequate way to prepare a person for a trip back in time?
“How long was I gone?”
“Two minutes. I told you, it’s always two minutes. No matter how long you stay.” He coughed, spat into a fresh wad of napkins, and folded them away in his pocket. “And when you go down the steps, it’s always 11:58 A.M. on the morning of September ninth, 1958. Every trip is the first trip. Where did you go?”
“The Kennebec Fruit. I had a root beer. It was fantastic.”
“Yeah, things taste better there. Less preservatives, or something.”
“You know Frank Anicetti? I met him as a kid of seventeen.”
Somehow, in spite of everything, I expected Al to laugh, but he took it as a matter of course. “Sure. I’ve met Frank many times. But he only meets me once — back then, I mean. For Frank, every time is the first time. He comes in, right? From the Chevron. ‘Titus has got the truck up on the lift,’ he tells his dad. ‘Says it’ll be ready by five.’ I’ve heard that fifty times, at least. Not that I always go into the Fruit when I go back, but when I do, I hear it. Then the ladies come in to pick over the fruit. Mrs. Symonds and her friends. It’s like going to the same movie over and over and over again.”
“Every time is the first time.” I said it slowly, putting a space around each word. Trying to get them to make sense in my mind.
“And every person you meet is meeting you for the first time, no matter how many times you’ve met before.”
“I could go back and have the same conversation with Frank and his dad and they wouldn’t know.”
“Right again. Or you could change something — order a banana split instead of a root beer, say — and the rest of the conversation would go a different way. The only one who seems to suspect something’s off is the Yellow Card Man, and he’s too booze-fucked to know what he’s feeling. If I’m right, that is, and he feels anything. If he does, it’s because he just happens to be sitting near the rabbit-hole. Or whatever it is. Maybe it puts out some kind of energy field. He—”
But he got coughing again and couldn’t go on. Watching him doubled over, holding his side and trying not to show me how bad it hurt — how it was tearing him up inside — was painful itself. He can’t go on this way, I thought. He’s no more than a week from the hospital, and probably just days. And wasn’t that why he’d called me? Because he had to pass on this amazing secret to somebody before the cancer shut his lips forever?
“I thought I could give you the entire lowdown this afternoon, but I can’t,” Al said when he had control of himself again. “I need to go home, take some of my dope, and put my feet up. I’ve never taken anything stronger than aspirin in my whole life, and that Oxy crap puts me out like a light. I’ll sleep for six hours or so and then feel better for awhile. A little stronger. Can you come by my place around nine-thirty?”
“I could if I knew where you live,” I said.
“Little cottage on Vining Street. Number nineteen. Look for the lawn gnome beside the porch. You can’t miss it. He’s waving a flag.”
“What have we got to talk about, Al? I mean. . you showed me. I believe you now.” So I did. . but for how long? Already my brief visit to 1958 had taken on the fading texture of a dream. A few hours (or a few days) and I’d probably be able to convince myself that I had dreamed it.
“We’ve got a lot to talk about, buddy. Will you come?” He didn’t repeat dying man’s request, but I read it in his eyes.
“All right. Do you want a ride to your place?”
His eyes flashed at that. “I’ve got my truck, and it’s only five blocks. I can drive myself that far.”
“Sure you can,” I said, hoping I sounded more convinced than I felt. I got up and started putting my stuff back into my pockets. I encountered the wad of cash he’d given me and took it out. Now I understood the changes in the five-spot. There were probably changes in the other bills, as well.
I held it out and he shook his head. “Nah, keep it, I got plenty.”
But I put it down on the table. “If every time’s the first time, how can you keep the money you bring back? How come it isn’t erased the next time you go?”
“No clue, buddy. I told you, there’s all kinds of stuff I don’t know. There are rules, and I’ve figured out a few, but not many.” His face lit in a wan but genuinely amused smile. “You brought back your root beer, didn’t you? Still sloshing around in your belly, isn’t it?”
As a matter of fact it was.
“Well there you go. I’ll see you tonight, Jake. I’ll be rested and we’ll talk this out.”
“One more question?”
He flicked a hand at me, a go-ahead gesture. I noticed that his nails, which he always kept scrupulously clean, were yellow and cracked. Another bad sign. Not as telling as the thirty-pound weight loss, but still bad. My dad used to say you can tell a lot about a person’s health just by the state of his or her fingernails.
“The Famous Fatburger.”
“What about it?” But there was a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
“You can sell cheap because you buy cheap, isn’t that right?”
“Ground chuck from the Red & White,” he said. “Fifty-four cents a pound. I go in every week. Or I did until my latest adventure, which took me a long way from The Falls. I trade with Mr. Warren, the butcher. If I ask him for ten pounds of ground chuck, he says, ‘Coming right up.’ If I ask for twelve or fourteen, he says, ‘Going to have to give me a minute to grind you up some fresh. Having a family get-together?’”
“Always the same.”
“Because it’s always the first time.”
“Correct. It’s like the story of the loaves and fishes in the Bible, when you think of it. I buy the same ground chuck week after week. I’ve fed it to hundreds or thousands of people, in spite of those stupid catburger rumors, and it always renews itself.”
“You buy the same meat, over and over.” Trying to get it through my skull.
“The same meat, at the same time, from the same butcher. Who always says the same things, unless I say something different. I’ll admit, buddy, that it’s sometimes crossed my mind to walk up to him and say, ‘How’s it going there, Mr. Warren, you old bald bastard? Been fucking any warm chicken-holes lately?’ He’d never remember. But I never have. Because he’s a nice man. Most people I’ve met back then are nice folks.” At this he looked a little wistful.
“I don’t understand how you can buy meat there. . serve it here. . then buy it again.”
“Join the club, buddy. I just appreciate like hell that you’re still here — I could have lost you. For that matter, you didn’t have to answer the phone when I called the school.”
Part of me wished I hadn’t, but I didn’t say that. Probably I didn’t have to. He was sick, not blind.
“Come to the house tonight. I’ll tell you what I’ve got in mind, and then you can do whatever you think is best. But you’ll have to decide pretty fast, because time is short. Kind of ironic, wouldn’t you say, considering where the invisible steps in my pantry come out?”
More slowly than ever, I said: “Every. . time. . is. . the. . first time.”
He smiled again. “I think you’ve got that part. I’ll see you tonight, okay? Nineteen Vining Street. Look for the gnome with the flag.”
I left Al’s Diner at three-thirty. The six hours between then and nine-thirty weren’t as weird as visiting Lisbon Falls fifty-three years ago, but almost. Time seemed simultaneously to drag and speed by. I drove back to the house I was buying in Sabattus (Christy and I sold the one we’d owned in The Falls and split the take when our marital corporation dissolved). I thought I’d take a nap, but of course I couldn’t sleep. After twenty minutes of lying on my back, straight as a poker, and staring up at the ceiling, I went into the bathroom to take a leak. As I watched the urine splash into the bowl, I thought: That’s processed root beer from 1958. But at the same time I was thinking that was bullshit, Al had hypnotized me somehow.
That doubling thing, see?
I tried to finish reading the last of the honors essays, and wasn’t a bit surprised to find I couldn’t do it. Wield Mr. Epping’s fearsome red pen? Pass critical judgments? That was a laugh. I couldn’t even make the words connect. So I turned on the tube (throwback slang from the Nifty Fifties; televisions no longer have tubes) and channel-surfed for awhile. On TMC I came across an old movie called Dragstrip Girl. I found myself watching the old cars and angst-ridden teens so intently it was giving me a headache, and I turned it off. I made myself a stir-fry, then couldn’t eat it even though I was hungry. I sat there, looking at it on the plate, thinking about Al Templeton serving the same dozen or so pounds of hamburger over and over, year after year. It really was like the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and so what if catburger and dogburger rumors circulated due to his low prices? Given what he was paying for meat, he had to be making an absurd profit on every Fatburger he did sell.
When I realized I was pacing around my kitchen — unable to sleep, unable to read, unable to watch TV, a perfectly good stir-fry turned down the sink-pig — I got in my car and drove back to town. It was quarter to seven by then, and there were plenty of parking spaces on Main Street. I pulled in across from the Kennebec Fruit and sat behind the wheel, staring at a paint-peeling relic that had once been a thriving smalltown business. Closed for the day, it looked ready for the wrecking ball. The only sign of human habitation were a few Moxie signs in the dusty show window (DRINK MOXIE FOR HEALTH! read the biggest), and they were so old-fashioned they could have been left behind for years.
The Fruit’s shadow stretched across the street to touch my car. To my right, where the liquor store had been, there was now a tidy brick building that housed a branch of Key Bank. Who needed a greenfront when you could bop into any grocery store in the state and bop back out with a pint of Jack or a quart of coffee brandy? Not in a flimsy paper bag, either; in these modern times we use plastic, son. Lasts a thousand years. And speaking of grocery stores, I had never heard of one called the Red & White. If you wanted to shop for food in The Falls, you went to the IGA a block down on 196. It was right across from the old railroad station. Which was now a combination tee-shirt shop and tattoo parlor.
All the same, the past felt very close just then — maybe it was just the golden cast of the declining summer light, which has always struck me as slightly supernatural. It was as if 1958 were still right here, only hidden beneath a flimsy film of intervening years. And, if I hadn’t imagined what had happened to me this afternoon, that was true.
He wants me to do something. Something he would have done himself, but the cancer stopped him. He said he went back and stayed for four years (at least I thought that was what he’d said), but four years wasn’t long enough.
Was I willing to go back down those stairs and stay for four-plus years? Basically take up residence? Come back two minutes later. . only in my forties, with strands of gray starting to show up in my hair? I couldn’t imagine doing that, but I couldn’t imagine what Al had found so important back there in the first place. The one thing I did know was that four or six or eight years of my life was too much to ask, even for a dying man.
I still had over two hours before I was scheduled to show up at Al’s. I decided I’d go back home, make myself another meal, and this time force myself to eat it. After that, I’d take another shot at finishing my honors essays. I might be one of the very few people who had ever traveled back in time — for that matter, Al and I might be the only ones who had ever done it in the history of the world — but my poetry students were still going to want their final grades.
I hadn’t had the radio on when I drove to town, but I turned it on now. Like my TV, it gets its programming from computer-driven space voyagers that go whirling around the earth at a height of twenty-two thousand miles, an idea that surely would have been greeted with wide-eyed wonder (but probably not outright disbelief) by the teenager Frank Anicetti had been back in the day. I tuned to the Sixties on Six and caught Danny & the Juniors working out on “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay”—three or four urgent, harmonic voices singing over a jackhammer piano. They were followed by Little Richard screaming “Lucille” at the top of his lungs, and then Ernie K-Doe more or less moaning “Mother-in-Law”: She thinks her advice is a contribution, but if she would leave that would be the solution. It all sounded as fresh and sweet as the oranges Mrs. Symonds and her friends had been picking over that early afternoon.
It sounded new.
Did I want to spend years in the past? No. But I did want to go back. If only to hear how Little Richard sounded when he was still top of the pops. Or get on a Trans World Airlines plane without having to take off my shoes, submit to a full-body scan, and go through a metal detector.
And I wanted another root beer.